Throughout your academic career, you'll be asked to write papers in which you compare and contrast two things: two texts, two theories, two historical figures, two scientific processes, and so on. "Classic" compare-and-contrast papers, in which you weight A and B equally, may be about two similar things that have crucial differences (two pesticides with different effects on the environment) or two similar things that have crucial differences, yet turn out to have surprising commonalities (two politicians with vastly different world views who voice unexpectedly similar perspectives on sexual harassment).
In the "lens" (or "keyhole") comparison, in which you weight A less heavily than B, you use A as a lens through which to view B. Just as looking through a pair of glasses changes the way you see an object, using A as a framework for understanding B changes the way you see B. Lens comparisons are useful for illuminating, critiquing, or challenging the stability of a thing that, before the analysis, seemed perfectly understood. Often, lens comparisons take time into account: earlier texts, events, or historical figures may illuminate later ones, and vice versa.
Faced with a daunting list of seemingly unrelated similarities and differences, you may feel confused about how to construct a paper that isn't just a mechanical exercise in which you first state all the features that A and B have in common, and then state all the ways in which A and B are different. Predictably, the thesis of such a paper is usually an assertion that A and B are very similar yet not so similar after all. To write a good compare-and-contrast paper, you must take your raw data—the similarities and differences you've observed—and make them cohere into a meaningful argument. Here are the five elements required.
Frame of Reference. This is the context within which you place the two things you plan to compare and contrast; it is the umbrella under which you have grouped them. The frame of reference may consist of an idea, theme, question, problem, or theory; a group of similar things from which you extract two for special attention; biographical or historical information. The best frames of reference are constructed from specific sources rather than your own thoughts or observations. Thus, in a paper comparing how two writers redefine social norms of masculinity, you would be better off quoting a sociologist on the topic of masculinity than spinning out potentially banal-sounding theories of your own. Most assignments tell you exactly what the frame of reference should be, and most courses supply sources for constructing it. If you encounter an assignment that fails to provide a frame of reference, you must come up with one on your own. A paper without such a context would have no angle on the material, no focus or frame for the writer to propose a meaningful argument.
Grounds for Comparison. Let's say you're writing a paper on global food distribution, and you've chosen to compare apples and oranges. Why these particular fruits? Why not pears and bananas? The rationale behind your choice, the grounds for comparison, lets your reader know why your choice is deliberate and meaningful, not random. For instance, in a paper asking how the "discourse of domesticity" has been used in the abortion debate, the grounds for comparison are obvious; the issue has two conflicting sides, pro-choice and pro-life. In a paper comparing the effects of acid rain on two forest sites, your choice of sites is less obvious. A paper focusing on similarly aged forest stands in Maine and the Catskills will be set up differently from one comparing a new forest stand in the White Mountains with an old forest in the same region. You need to indicate the reasoning behind your choice.
Thesis. The grounds for comparison anticipates the comparative nature of your thesis. As in any argumentative paper, your thesis statement will convey the gist of your argument, which necessarily follows from your frame of reference. But in a compare-and-contrast, the thesis depends on how the two things you've chosen to compare actually relate to one another. Do they extend, corroborate, complicate, contradict, correct, or debate one another? In the most common compare-and-contrast paper—one focusing on differences—you can indicate the precise relationship between A and B by using the word "whereas" in your thesis:
Whereas Camus perceives ideology as secondary to the need to address a specific historical moment of colonialism, Fanon perceives a revolutionary ideology as the impetus to reshape Algeria's history in a direction toward independence.
Whether your paper focuses primarily on difference or similarity, you need to make the relationship between A and B clear in your thesis. This relationship is at the heart of any compare-and-contrast paper.
Organizational Scheme. Your introduction will include your frame of reference, grounds for comparison, and thesis. There are two basic ways to organize the body of your paper.
- In text-by-text, you discuss all of A, then all of B.
- In point-by-point, you alternate points about A with comparable points about B.
If you think that B extends A, you'll probably use a text-by-text scheme; if you see A and B engaged in debate, a point-by-point scheme will draw attention to the conflict. Be aware, however, that the point-by- point scheme can come off as a ping-pong game. You can avoid this effect by grouping more than one point together, thereby cutting down on the number of times you alternate from A to B. But no matter which organizational scheme you choose, you need not give equal time to similarities and differences. In fact, your paper will be more interesting if you get to the heart of your argument as quickly as possible. Thus, a paper on two evolutionary theorists' different interpretations of specific archaeological findings might have as few as two or three sentences in the introduction on similarities and at most a paragraph or two to set up the contrast between the theorists' positions. The rest of the paper, whether organized text- by-text or point-by-point, will treat the two theorists' differences.
You can organize a classic compare-and-contrast paper either text-by-text or point-by-point. But in a "lens" comparison, in which you spend significantly less time on A (the lens) than on B (the focal text), you almost always organize text-by-text. That's because A and B are not strictly comparable: A is merely a tool for helping you discover whether or not B's nature is actually what expectations have led you to believe it is.
Linking of A and B. All argumentative papers require you to link each point in the argument back to the thesis. Without such links, your reader will be unable to see how new sections logically and systematically advance your argument. In a compare-and contrast, you also need to make links between A and B in the body of your essay if you want your paper to hold together. To make these links, use transitional expressions of comparison and contrast (similarly, moreover, likewise, on the contrary, conversely, on the other hand) and contrastive vocabulary (in the example below, Southerner/Northerner).
As a girl raised in the faded glory of the Old South, amid mystical tales of magnolias and moonlight, the mother remains part of a dying generation. Surrounded by hard times, racial conflict, and limited opportunities, Julian, on the other hand, feels repelled by the provincial nature of home, and represents a new Southerner, one who sees his native land through a condescending Northerner's eyes.
Copyright 1998, Kerry Walk, for the Writing Center at Harvard University
SOURCE: Adams, M. Ian. “Juan Carlos Onetti: Alienation and the Fragmented Image.” In Three Authors of Alienation: Bombal, Onetti, Carpentier, pp. 37-80. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975.
[In the following essay, Adams describes the reading of Onetti's fiction as a “schizophrenic experience” for the reader because of Onetti's technique of fragmenting perception and imagery.]
Juan Carlos Onetti has been a prolific author and an important one.1 His first publication, El pozo, in December of 1939, marked a new stage in Uruguayan literature. Angel Rama describes the cultural background of Onetti and El pozo: “From 1938 to 1940 a fracture occurs in Uruguayan culture that opens, through the course of a new interpretation of ethical and artistic values, a creative period that, after intense struggle, will control the intellectual life of the country. This fracture coincides with the rise of a generation of writers who vary between twenty and thirty years of age, who in part provoke it, and whose action is projected on the particularly disordered background of national and international life of those years.”2
El pozo was immediately followed by a larger novel, Tierra de nadie, in 1941. Another novel, Para esta noche, appeared in 1943. After this Onetti did not publish a major work until 1950, when La vida breve appeared. This is considered by many critics to be his best and most ambitious work. La vida breve was followed by two novels: Los adioses (1954) and Para una tumba sin nombre (1959). A somewhat longer novel, El astillero, was published in 1961. His last published novel to date is Juntacadáveres, which appeared in 1965.3
In addition to writing novels, Onetti has been a productive short-story writer. Un sueño realizado y otros cuentos was published in 1951. Another collection, El infierno tan temido y otros cuentos, came out in 1962. All of these are in Cuentos completos, published in 1967.4 Mario Benedetti has described the nature of Onetti's stories compared to his novels: “Onetti's stories show, as soon as they are compared to his novels, two notable differences: the obligatory restriction of material, which simplifies its dramatism, affirming it, and also the relative abandonment—the unconscious transfer—of the subjective burden that is borne by the protagonist in the novels and that generally is a limitation, at times a monotonous insistence of the narrator.”5
Many of his works, however, fall into the territory between novel and short story. The relative complexity of theme and the quantity of subjective elements associated with it, as mentioned by Benedetti, seem to be reasonable criteria to separate short novels from short stories. Thus El pozo, although of few pages, is in Onetti's novelistic mode because of the presence of many themes and because of the subjective, ambiguous presentation of these themes. “El infierno tan temido” is structured around one action and its consequences and is very limited thematically. “Jacob y el otro” is of greater length than the other stories, but is again characterized by simplicity. A future action, a wrestling match, is the cause of all of the story's movement, and there are few complications of imagery or subjective content.
Complexity and ambiguity are the major characteristics of Onetti's novels. Emir Rodríguez Monegal, comparing him with his contemporaries, describes the difficulties and rewards of reading Onetti: “Anyone will notice the suspicious monotony of his figures, the unilaterality of descriptive method, the symbolism (at times excessive) of his actions and characters, the deliberately baroque development that obstructs the reading, the isolated traces of bad taste. But none of those in his category (urban and realist) attains the violence and lucidity of his declarations, the sure quality of his art, which overcomes superficial realism and moves with passion among symbols.”6
Augmenting this complexity is, as Harss and Dohmann point out, Onetti's way of dealing with content. “He is less interested in arriving at the truth of a situation than in isolating its components—its alternatives—which are likely to yield as many falsehoods as facts.”7 As will be seen in the discussion of El pozo, the reader must separate falsehoods from facts in order to understand the character of the protagonist and the nature of the problems facing him.
At the stylistic level much of Onetti's complexity is not original. It stems from the acknowledged influence of other writers, particularly Faulkner.8 Dos Passos has been important in influencing the structure of Onetti's earlier work, above all Tierra de nadie. The other major foreign influence has been Celine. Roberto Arlt, according to Harss and Dohmann, is also of importance.9
Onetti's creation of a fictional geography would seem to be obviously due to Faulkner, but the major differences between Yoknapatawpha County and Santa María are indicative of the different goals of the authors. Faulkner gives his creation all the appearance of reality. More importantly, his use of location is centrifugal. He peoples his county with generations of families and explores its history from the beginning. His characters stand apart from one another and are united by their roots in the land and its history. Readers of Onetti know that Santa María is a creation, because they were present at its birth in La vida breve, where it is an invention of the main character, Brausen. The major difference is, however, that Onetti's world is centripetal. The external features serve only as a frame for internal chaos. All the characters fall toward this center point, and individuals do not stand out as they do in Faulkner. Onetti himself, in Juntacadáveres, has best described his typical character in Santa María: “He isn't a person; he is, like all the inhabitants of this strip of the river, a determined intensity of life molding itself in the form of his own mania, his own idiocy.”10
Alienation is a major feature of Onetti's internalized world. Mario Benedetti recognizes this when he states that “the dramatism of his fiction is derived precisely from a reiterated verification of alienation, from the forced incommunication endured by the protagonist and, therefore, by the author.”11 Harss and Dohmann, writing of the main figure in El pozo, generalize on the importance of alienation in Onetti. “Even in his alienation, or because of it, he is representative of a time and place, a frame of mind, an epoch. It is this fact that gives his experiences relevance and validity. To have realized this is Onetti's merit.”12
Harss and Dohmann have also pointed out another aspect of alienation in Onetti. “What this amounts to in practice is that reading an Onetti book is a schizophrenic experience. The reader is in constant flux between the mind or perceptions of the narrator-protagonist and those of the author, the two being practically indistinguishable.”13 They do not explore this aspect any further. In the discussion that follows, an attempt will be made to show how Onetti's artistic manipulation of the schizophrenic experience (or the experience of extreme alienation) produces a unique imagery and an unusual sensation for the reader of participation in an alienated world.
Due to the cohesiveness of Onetti's fictional world in terms of characters and content, with the exceptions of Tierra de nadie and Para esta noche, and also to the presence of recurring reworked themes, with the same people in different situations and stages of development, the procedure followed in this study will be to examine carefully a limited number of works, while attempting to show their relation to others, in terms of theme and technique. El pozo, because of its relative clarity and simplicity of themes, compared to their later ambiguity, and because of the importance critics have attached to it, will be studied first.
The protagonist of El pozo, Eladio Linacero, is one of the best examples in contemporary South American literature of the completely alienated man. Angel Rama considers the main theme of the novel to be “radical solitude.” He divides this solitude into two aspects, physical and emotional. The protagonist is physically isolated, alone in a room, and he is emotionally isolated, having cut all ties with other human beings, according to Rama.14
The story is, however, built not around the solitude of the protagonist but, rather, around his attempts at communication. The time elapsed, less than one day, is limited to how long it takes Linacero to write his first-person narrative. The author-protagonist gives the reader fragments of past and present personal history and an ostensibly complete picture of his emotional life.
Based on the nature of the attempts at communication, the novel divides itself into two parts. The first is concerned with the narrator's presentation of his present situation, the beginning of the act of writing, a statement of purpose that, as will be seen, is both aesthetic and emotional, and, finally, the first attempt at written communication, directed toward the reader. The second part is primarily a description of past frustrated attempts at communication with other people. In each case the hidden content of these efforts reveals more of the narrator's condition than he is aware of presenting. The result of the narrative is that Eladio Linacero reaches a crisis of self-hate, induced by a confrontation with his own existence. The novel ends at the moment of his maximum desperation.
It is evident from the foregoing synopsis that literary creation is an important theme in El pozo, and this fact has been noted by most of the critics who have studied the work. What is less evident is that the theme is shaped by and develops within the restrictions imposed upon it by the personality of the protagonist. Because extreme alienation is the outstanding characteristic of the narrator, El pozo provides a unique opportunity to examine the relations between alienation and literary creation.
The first paragraph of the novel indirectly introduces the theme of creation, in an unexpected context. “A while ago I was walking around the room and it suddenly occurred to me that I was seeing it for the first time. There are two cots, broken-down chairs without seats, sun-faded papers, months old, fixed in the window in place of glass.”15 The room is important as the boundary of the narrator's physical solitude and as the setting for the entire story. It is also the only place left to the narrator in his retreat from the world. At the beginning of the narration, the room has been a fixture and a delimitation of his life for some time, to the point that he is no longer aware of its existence. Yet, upon starting an attempt at communication, he sees it again, with new perspective. The inference is that he is entering into a new relation with his surroundings, no matter how reduced they are, caused by the act of creation. This interpretation is supported by the first statement he makes about the act of writing, a page later. “I found a pencil and a pile of pamphlets under Lázaro's bed, and now nothing bothers me, neither the filth, nor the heat, nor the wretches in the patio. It is certain that I don't know how to write, but I'm writing about myself” (p. 8).
The quoted lines also illuminate a feature of the first paragraph of the story that will have meaning later and will be seen in other works by Onetti. The word filth describes the emotional impact of Linacero's environment, especially that of the room. Yet, in the already quoted first paragraph, when he is looking at the room as though it were for the first time, he does not generalize on what he sees. Instead he describes isolated parts, substituting them for a totality of vision.
This form of vision emerges more clearly in his first description of a person, a prostitute. “She was a small woman, with pointed fingers … I can't remember her face; I see only her shoulder chapped by the whiskers that had been rubbing it, always that shoulder, never the right one, the skin reddened and the fine-fingered hand pointing it out” (pp. 7-8). Two fragments—fingers and a shoulder—serve to represent a human being. The narrator remembers nothing else about her.
The function and meaning of this type of vision do not become evident immediately. It is only through the additional information given by the narrator and through contrast with another kind of vision present in his dreams that the reader can begin to define their importance.
Before Linacero breaks the time sequence of the first section to describe a past event and the dream constructed around it, he talks about himself and his intentions with respect to what he is going to write. His self-description both directly and indirectly defines his alienation.
His reaction to a child playing in the mud and to the activities of people seen from his window shows several alienated attitudes. He says, “I realized that there really were people capable of feeling tenderness for that” (p. 8). The scene that provoked the response was banal but not repulsive. An underlying disgust for life is the obvious bias that explains the incongruity of the response. Linacero's lack of toleration of other viewpoints implies confidence in the correctness of his reaction. The possibility that he has been disillusioned by the failure of humanistic ideals is fairly well negated by the absence of repulsive elements in the scene. However, his disillusionment is implied by a value judgment in another description of people, “the wretches in the patio” (p. 8). At this point in the work, there is not enough evidence to assess the narrator's idealism, although the possibility of projection of his unhappiness and disgust to other people suggests itself. As the novel progresses, idealism is seen to be a veneer covering Linacero's radical irrational disgust with life.
Further motives for Linacero's efforts toward written communication are given. The next day will be his fortieth birthday. “I never would have imagined forty this way, alone and surrounded by filth, enclosed in a room. But this doesn't make me melancholic. Nothing more than a feeling of curiosity about life and a bit of admiration for its ability to always disconcert. I don't even have any tobacco” (p. 8). He obviously considers the birthday to be of importance as a personal dividing line and as a way of measuring his solitude. He implies disillusionment due to unfulfilled expectations, but he does not attach much importance to it. The description stresses his physical solitude and, at the same time, seems to show philosophical acceptance of his emotional alienation from life and his distrust of it. To claim curiosity would seem to mean that his removal of himself from life has not caused too much difficulty.
The last sentence—“I don't even have any tobacco”—is apparently a non sequitur, yet the negative relates it to the rest of the paragraph. Only in retrospect does its meaning become clear. At the end of El pozo, when Linacero has reached a state of total desperation, he gives another definition of himself. “I'm a solitary man who smokes anyplace in the city” (p. 36). The habit of smoking has become his only human action in the face of total alienation, withdrawal, desperation, and disgust. Thus, in the first part of the work, when he says he does not have any tobacco, it would seem that he is making a symbolic statement about the depth of his solitude that belies his more rational statement of philosophical fortitude. Other examples of the same technique of symbolic commentary that support this interpretation will be seen later.
Onetti often uses two levels of repeated actions: habitual actions and repeated meaningless actions. They have as a common ground repetition, but habitual actions are meaningful in that they reflect and define the existence of the person involved. Repeated meaningless actions are external to the character of the person but may have meaning in relation to the book. An example of habitual action is seen in Los adioses; the protagonist is most frequently seen in the act of drinking, and this act is his major connection with the narrator.
In addition to the function of these two types of action with respect to the description of characters, they also are major structural elements. In Para una tumba sin nombre the action of smoking a pipe is used to separate the narrative sections and to represent the narrator's periods of communication. It has a similar function in La cara de la desgracia. Habitual action is raised to the level of ritual in Tan triste como ella, where it is central to the understanding of the protagonist's suicide. When she can no longer struggle against the vegetation in her garden, life ceases to have meaning for her. In El astillero repeated meaningless action, reading former business transactions, becomes a defensive ploy in Larsen's fight to endure.
One of the significant differences between Onetti's novels and his short stories is the relative lack of repeated action patterns of both types in the latter. “El infierno tan temido” initially seems to be built around repetition, the sending of pornographic photographs, but the action is really cumulative rather than repetitive: it is the vengeance taken by the wife for damage done by her husband. The stories probably lack these patterns because they are concerned with one action and its immediate consequences, whereas the other works emphasize an expanding series of possibilities, conflicts, and ambiguities arising from any situation or action.
The aesthetic result of this technique is a fragmentation of the character or characters involved. The repetition destroys what would be a normal process of development and response, so that, instead of gaining recognition and familiarity with the literary figure through cumulative exposure, the reader is constantly thrown back to the uncertainty and ambiguity of his first contacts with the character. Onetti's frequent use of a narrator separated from the protagonist would also seem to indicate his intention to distance the reader from his characters. In effect this is planned alienation of the reader from the content of the work.
El pozo is atypical of Onetti's works in that the first-person narration has an immediacy and a directness not seen in most of the others. There are probably two reasons for this. First, it is an early work and Onetti had not yet developed the use of ambiguity and multiplicity of planes that characterize his later writing. Tierra de nadie and Para esta noche show a developing ability in the manipulation of these factors. La vida breve represents their full development. The second reason is the importance of the theme of communication in El pozo. The aforementioned tendencies and techniques would blunt the impact and restrict the development of this theme. Para una tumba sin nombre shows the application of these techniques to the theme of communication, with resultant complete ambiguity as to motives and content.
Communication is uppermost in Linacero's mind when he reaches what he calls “the point of departure” in his attempt to write. “But now I want to do something different. Something better than the story of the things that happened to me. I would like to write the story of a soul, of it alone, without the events in which it had to participate, wanting to or not. Or of dreams. From some nightmare, the most distant that I remember, to the adventures in the log cabin” (p. 9).
That these two artistic possibilities are of equal value to the narrator is obvious, but at first there does not seem to be any explanation as to why they should be equal. The first, “the story of a soul,” free from the events in which it had to participate, is an undefinable and unobtainable goal, an artistic ideal. The other, the story of dreams, is, as the reader knows retrospectively, the essence of the emotional life of the narrator. Thus the second possibility is really a particularization or individualization of the first. That the narrator does not make the logical link is not important. In fact, he goes to the opposite extreme and tries to deny the role dreams play in his life. “What is curious is that, should anyone say of me that I'm a dreamer, it would annoy me. It's absurd. I've lived like everybody else” (p. 9). The reader has enough information to know that the narrator has not lived as described. The development of the story will show the untruth of his denial of being a dreamer.
Thus, before starting into the series of dreams to be related by Linacero, the reader should be aware that he cannot take the declarations and judgments of the narrator at face value but must instead search for evidence of other interpretations. Without this realization it would be impossible to interpret the relation of Eladio to the prostitute Ester, or to see the self-knowledge she forces on him, or to recognize his methods of evasion. If the scene with Ester were not interpreted correctly, Linacero's final state of desperation would be deprived of much of its meaning, because it then would not be greatly different from his state at the beginning.
As a literary device the deceitful narrator poses several problems. First of all, the reader must not have a sense of being manipulated by the author. Onetti avoids this problem by making deceit an integral part of the narrator's character and an essential part of the meaning of that which is narrated.
In terms of personality, Linacero's deceit becomes an external measure of his alienation. He can tell the reader about his solitude and isolation from humanity, but only through the discovery of his deceit is the reader able to judge Linacero's alienation from himself and his inability to exercise self-control even in an artistic creation.
Another problem is the possibility of excessive distancing of the reader from the character, with resultant loss of interest in the entire work. This possibility is also avoided because the detection and evaluation of the deceit become a necessity. Thus, although the reader is separated from the protagonist, he participates in the work because of the independent judgments he has to make.
Onetti uses the deceitful narrator, with significant variations, in other works. In La cara de la desgracia the reader, because of events, must decide if the narrator is telling the truth, but he must do so without any conclusive textual evidence. The meaning of the story changes completely, according to his decision. Para una tumba sin nombre has two narrators. The admission of deceit by one of them, Jorge Malabia, is made totally ambiguous because of conflicting lies by several persons.
A new dimension of Linacero's alienation is presented when he starts to tell what happened with Ana María. He places the adventure in the world of real events, “something that happened in the real world …” (p. 9). This description of course implies a split emotional life, and it is the first evidence of a divided personality. Three of the narrated episodes—with Ana María, with Ester the prostitute, and with his wife—revolve around the relation between his dream world and the real world. It becomes apparent that the only satisfactory life he has takes place in his dream world. His attempts at communication fail because people either reject his dream world or see the true motives behind it that he is unwilling to accept. The division is so important that it is reflected by the novel's imagery. Each world is characterized by its way of looking at people and objects. Thus the description of the episode with Ana María is worthy of special attention for what it reveals about the “real world” and its relation to the imaginary one.
The first aspect of interest in this episode is another contradiction. It reaffirms the falsity of Linacero's denial of being a dreamer and his claim of having led a normal life. He says of his adolescence, “Even then I had nothing to do with anyone” (p. 10). This statement extends his solitude and alienation into childhood and suggests causes other than the philosophical rejection of the world implied in his introduction and presented again when he describes his failure with other people. It seems legitimate to infer the existence of the same irrational disgust with and rejection of life in adolescence that is present in Linacero's adulthood, as one can deduce from his reaction to the view from his room.
Two other features of the encounter with Ana María deserve attention. The first is the way she is described, and the second is the sexual content of the episode, both manifest and latent, and its relation to the dream of Ana María and “the log cabin.”
When Linacero portrays Ana María, he describes only parts of her body: her arm, shoulder, and neck. He recognizes her “by her way of carrying an arm separated from her body” (p. 10). When he looks at her he sees only “nude arms and the nape of her neck” (p. 11). When he attacks Ana María he uses the same fragmented form of description. Her rage is shown by her breasts. “Only her chest, her huge breasts, were moving, desperate with rage and fatigue” (p. 12). Never is there any kind of description that allows a total vision of the girl.
It is obvious that the assault is sexual and yet Linacero disclaims any desire. “I never had, at any moment, the intention of violating her; I had no desire for her” (p. 12). However, he gives no reason for his actions, only indirectly suggesting a wish to humiliate. In his description, nevertheless, it is he who is humiliated. It seems reasonable to assume, given his age, that what he narrates is his sexual initiation and that, due to failure, humiliation, or totally unexplained reasons, he does not wish to, or cannot, reveal the true nature of the encounter.
Linacero's sexual desires toward Ana María do not become manifest until he describes the dream based on the encounter in real life. As a prologue to the dream he relates its content to Ana María in the “real world.” “But now I don't have to lay stupid traps. She is the one who comes at night, without my calling her, without knowing where she comes from … Nude, she extends herself on the burlap covering of the bough bed” (p. 14). Sex is the only motive in the dream, but the initiative has been transferred to Ana María. Furthermore, the Eladio Linacero she offers herself to has no relation either to the adolescent who desired her but hid his desire from himself or to the solitary, alienated, withdrawn man writing in his room. The imagined Linacero is a gregarious man of action, the object of unreasoned sexual desire. Thus in both dream and reality Linacero presents a distorted image of himself. In the dream the image is changed by fantasy that would seem to be compensatory for an unacceptable reality. In reality it is changed by omission or misdirection in order to conceal his true nature and feelings from himself. In both cases the projected self-image indicates the irrational basis of his alienation.
Thus one aspect of Angel Rama's description of the function of dreams seems to be incorrect. He states, “If there is a dominant and original line running through the story, defining it, defining the character, it is this capacity for ‘dreaming,’ removing himself from reality.”16 At all levels of narration Linacero alters reality. The difference between the dreams and the “real world” lies in the method and degree of separation from reality, not in the separation itself.
Another major difference exists between Linacero's dreams and all other events. The fragmented vision resulting in incomplete images in his description of the real Ana María has already been noted. In the dream this type of vision is absent. Instead Linacero gives a complete description of Ana María's body. “From above, without gesture and without speaking to her, I look at her cheeks that are starting to flush, at the thousand drops shining on her body and moving with the flames of the fire, at her breasts that seem to quiver like a flickering candle agitated by silent steps. The girl's face has an open frank look, and, scarcely separating her lips, she smiles at me” (pp. 14-15). The part of the body he isolates indicates his desire. “Slowly, still looking at her, I sit on the edge of the bed and fix my eyes on the black triangle, still shining from the storm. It is then, exactly, that the adventure begins” (p. 15). The sexual aspect of Linacero's fragmented vision is perfectly clear. When he is attempting to conceal his desire from himself and the reader, he fragments the body and describes parts that generally have no sexual interest. In the fantasized dream, where his desire is foremost, the body and its sexual attributes are completely described.
A point of coincidence between dreams and reality is seen when Linacero, after speaking about a woman with whom he has had sexual relations, generalizes about women. “A woman will be eternally closed to one, in spite of everything, if one does not possess her with the spirit of a violator” (p. 17). This is a projection of a wish from his dream world into the real world. Only in the former is he a man of action, a “violator.” This projection shows, again, the confusion of self-image between dream world and real world. It also perhaps reveals a hidden wish not to communicate with women, as this concept of physical love precludes communication. A further indication of this desire appears when Hanka asks Linacero a question—why he thinks that he will never fall in love again—that to answer would require both communication and self-realization. Rather than respond he breaks his relation with her. In addition, his philosophical outlook toward both women and humanity in general radically changes. Significantly, he rejects the possibility of communication with women, allowing a good deal of hate and disgust to show. “Why, a few lines before, was I speaking of understanding? None of these filthy beasts are able to understand anything” (p. 19). In the same fashion he shows his basic dislike of humanity: “… but the truth is that there are no people like that, healthy as animals. There are only men and women who are animals” (p. 18). Both of these statements are a long way from the earlier viewpoints expressed, but they are more revealing of the truth of Linacero's nature in that they come in response to stimuli that activate the deeper levels of his being. What is now completely visible is an all-encompassing disgust toward life and other human beings.
Of the additional attempts at communication described by Linacero only one is central to further understanding of his character and alienation. The others—with his former wife and with Cordes—add to his frustration and push him toward partial self-realization and desolation. In his relation with Ester, the prostitute, he is forced to look at the real, and probably most important, function of his dreams. Angel Rama has described this function: “The pleasurable, erotic, content of these dreams is known; it nourishes the masturbatory episodes …”17 Rama does not, however, deal with the importance of Linacero's being confronted with this knowledge, beyond recognizing his rejection of the charge by the prostitute.
There is a great deal of similarity, in terms of structure and imagery, between Linacero's description of his relation with the prostitute and the earlier episode with Ana María. The reader again sees something that takes place in the “real world.” After failure on this plane there is a dream, much abbreviated as compared to the one of “the log cabin,” that changes the reality involved. The description of Ester is another example of fragmented vision. “But she seemed younger, and her arms, thick and white, stretched out, milky in the light of the café, as if, on sinking into life, she had raised her hands, desperately pleading for help, thrashing like a drowned person, and the arms had remained behind, distant in time, the arms of a young girl, separate from the large nervous body, which no longer existed” (p. 20). The same process is at work but in a more exaggerated fashion. Not only do the parts of the prostitute described have no sexual connotations, but also they are surprisingly related to an earlier state of purity. That this difficult association takes place due to emotional needs of the narrator is obvious, because it is totally divorced from the physical and emotional reality of the situation. Linacero again seems to be masking his sexual desires as he did in the description of his assault on Ana María. His wish not to pay Ester can be interpreted as a symptom of his evasion, in that the money would be an open declaration of sexual intent.
It is also significant that Linacero interrupts the narrative of the lowest point in his life, the sexual conquest of a whore, to talk about the highest point, his brief love for his former wife. He says, “There had been something marvelous created by us” (p. 22). He offers two generalities to cover the failure of love and his marriage. “Love is marvelous and absurd, and, incomprehensibly, it touches all classes of souls. But absurd marvelous people are rare, and they are that way only for a short time, in early youth. Afterward they begin to accept, and they are lost” (p. 23). The basic belief expressed here is in the destructive power of life and of experience. The state of purity referred to can exist only in early youth, when there has been no exposure to life and no adjustment of ideals to reality. Youth is also the time of sexual awakening. It is this awakening that lies behind the other generalization, which is again overlaid by the idea of a lost purity. “And if one marries a girl and one day wakes at the side of a woman, it is possible that one will understand, without disgust, the souls of violators of children and the drooling kindness of those old men who wait with chocolates at school street corners” (p. 23). Here, however, the only attraction of youth is sexual.
The idea of purity is the key to the explanation of the episode with Ester. After succeeding in going with her to a hotel without paying, Linacero attempts to talk to her, when she is dressing, about her dreams and to create one for her. She responds with disgust, telling him that she knows they serve as an introduction to masturbation. He does not deny the charge; instead, as he did with Hanka, he rejects the person. “She was a wretched woman, and it was imbecilic to speak to her about this” (p. 27). He converts her into a dream, where she becomes completely pure and innocent. “At times I think about her, and there is an adventure in which Ester comes to visit me, or we unexpectedly meet, drinking and talking as good friends. She then tells me the things she dreams or imagines and they are always things of extraordinary purity, as simple as tales for children” (p. 27). The major modification is that she, in what she communicates as a dreamer, has taken over the role of Linacero. By giving her purity he has given it to himself. The inference is that the disgust felt by Ester was also felt by Linacero, and what he is trying to conceal is self-hate.
This interpretation is indirectly supported by the beginning of the paragraph following the one quoted above. Onetti uses a habitual action that has already acquired meaning to indicate the hidden reaction of Linacero. “I don't know what time it is. I've smoked so much that tobacco disgusts me” (p. 27). His definition of his essential life is that he is a solitary man who smokes. Repugnance for smoking symbolically means disgust with self and with life.
In addition to the indirect evidence discussed above, the last two episodes show a growing awareness on Linacero's part of his own self-hate. It is revealed directly but gradually. The first stage occurs when his roommate calls him a failure. Linacero only suggests his reaction. “But Lázaro doesn't know what he's saying when he screams ‘failure’ at me. He can't even suspect what that word means to me” (p. 29). Nevertheless, he does not expand on its meaning for him, instead making the reader guess what it might be. To be sensitive to failure can only indicate insecurity in terms of self-image and self-esteem.
In the episode with Cordes, Linacero for the first time in his narrative expresses a feeling of happiness and a belief that he is communicating. “It has been a long time since I felt so happy, free, talking with enthusiasm, tumultuously, without vacillation, sure of being understood, also listening with the same intensity, trying to foresee Cordes's thoughts” (p. 32). He tells Cordes a fantastic dream, and when he is not understood he has a violent reaction. “I'm sick of everything, do you understand, of people, of life, of proper verse. I go in a corner and imagine all that. That and dirty things, every night” (p. 34). This is at last the truth about himself, and its intensity can be explained only by the unwilling increase in self-awareness that has taken place through the narrative. Because of it he is partially able to assess his position in respect to himself and to others. His new perspective becomes evident when he compares himself to Lázaro, his roommate, for whom he has shown only disgust. “When all's said and done it's he who is the poet and dreamer. I'm a miserable man who turns at night toward the shadowed wall to think shoddy fantastic things” (p. 35).
Linacero's final statement about life carries the entire weight of the anguish that gradually reveals itself in the narrative. “This is night; he who couldn't feel it doesn't know it. Everything in life is shit, and now we're blind in the night, attentive and without comprehension” (p. 35). It is evident that, although he faces his condition more fully than before, he does not totally accept it and still desires communication with other human beings. It is a one-sided act of communication to extend, by the use of the first person plural, his condition onto humanity.
The picture of alienation that has emerged from the study of what the narrator relates and what can be seen behind his words is one of almost total withdrawal and isolation, made even more intense by repeated efforts at communication. The underlying causes of this alienation are rooted in the character of the narrator and are not due to any outside social pressures. The essence of Linacero's personality is an irrational disgust for all aspects of living. This disgust is coupled with self-hate that seems to arise from his adult sexual life. However, the origins of these features remain largely conjectural. Onetti has limited himself to presenting the condition without going into the causes of it.
The dominant technique used in the development of the protagonist's personality is that of the deceitful narrator. The reader, although distanced from Linacero, participates in the work because he has to make judgments about it that affect the meaning of the entire story.
Two other techniques were noted. One, the use of habitual or repeated action, does not play a very great role in El pozo, although several times the act of smoking carries the true meaning of what is being narrated. Of much more importance are the vision and visual images described by the narrator. A fragmented imagery is characteristic of all that he describes in the real world. The dream world contains coherent vision and imagery. The sexual aspect of this vision has been discussed, but its relation to the personality of Linacero was only indirectly dwelt upon. He obviously has a totally split personality in that his emotional life takes place in his imaginary world. His external “real world” personality is...