Nancy Scheper-Hughes

Death Without Weeping

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  • Features 12 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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Death Without Weeping Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 60-page guide for “Death Without Weeping” by Nancy Scheper-Hughes includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 12 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Casa and Rua and “Mother Love”.

Plot Summary

Published in 1989, Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, is an in-depth and long-ranging look at the crisis of infant and early-child mortality in the rural communities of the Brazilian Northeast. The author of the book is Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a former aidworker who returned to Brazil as an anthropologist. While the object of this book is infant and child mortality, its main focus is not a medical or scientific approach to the crisis, but a look at how these abnormally-high rates of child mortality affect these communities, and change their cultures. Based on her time as a volunteer aid worker and an anthropologist, Scheper-Hughes observed that the phenomenon of infant death carried with it little outward grieving or even attention, to the extent that it seemed accepted, even “normalized” among the community. Shaken by the experience of this ostensible indifference, the author looked to explore how the various elements of the culture of the Brazilian rural Northeast came to routinize, and, often, even rationalize infant death. Her hypothesis is that the high incidence of infant death among the Northeast’s rural poor is the end result of an unjust social system, the neglect and violence of which these residents cannot abjure, and instead must bear in silence.

The first chapter of Death Without Weeping builds a history of the Brazilian Northeast through the economic history of its dominant crop: sugarcane. This chapter details how sugarcane production began, its boom during slavery, and the plantation system that developed around it. This chapter also illustrates how vestiges of its tired, conspicuously-feudal class system persist in the modern day.

Among the significant parts of this socioeconomic history is the division of class along color and ethnic lines.

The book’s second chapter is an extended conceit on the idea of “thirst,” a metaphor used to illustrate three things: the precariousness of rural life amid drought; the persistently inadequate supply of clean water (and the disastrous effect of this on public health); and the community’s collective thirst for a more just, more equitable society. The author’s primary contention in Chapter 2 is that the injustice brought by class conflict uses this physical and spiritual “thirst” to keep the lower classes beneath them, and trap them in these highly toxic relationships of economic and social dependency.

The specifics and peculiarities of this social world emerge in Chapter 3, which introduces the market town of Bom Jesus and the adjacent shantytown of Alto do Cruzeiro. The names of these towns, like those of many of the book’s subjects, have been changed to protect the participants. Chapter 3 details the complex social hierarchy along class and ethnic lines, describing both the material and economic tiers of residents, and their general attitudes towards one another. The author pays particular attention to how residents’ socioeconomic positions correlates with their political sympathies. Chapter 3 introduces the “double ethic,” which governs relationships of poorer Nordestinos, to the upper-classes, a relationship based off indulgence, dependency, and strategic loyalty.

Similarly to Chapter 2, the fourth and fifth chapters look into both the material causes and cultural reception of hunger. Like previous chapters, this look at hunger is less a biological or medical approach to how hunger affects human beings and more how hunger becomes normalized as a fact of life among a community, and its effects on how residents learn to relate to another in this atmosphere of chronic malnutrition. A key term in these chapters is the popular idiom delírio de fome, the “madness of hunger” (19). On one hand, this “madness” is a colloquial term for how chronic malnutrition can spur bizarre instances of violence, such as murder and infanticide. However, the term also applies to a more subtle distortion of attitudes and behavior.

Chapter 6 looks at political violence and the culture of silence that ensues in its wake. The author chronicles the use of “disappearances” to silence dissent, a holdover from military years. The author theorizes that the anxieties around this form of political violence coincides with residents’ fears regarding the ownership and integrity of their own bodies, and their ultimate fates. The state of the public cemetery reflects this: residents’ interned relatives and friends are often exhumed and moved without their consent. Particularly for lower-class Nordestinos, burial represents another frustration and humiliation, reminding them of their powerlessness.

Chapter 7 incorporates these concerns in articulation of the author’s larger hypothesis: the powerlessness of poorer residents’ socioeconomic position translates into their expectations toward infant and early child death. The factors creating the high mortality rate―chronic malnutrition, infectious disease, dehydration, insufficient or nonexistent prenatal care, stress on expectant mothers―exist outside of residents’ control. As a result, infant death becomes a normalized part of life, incorporated into the culture through rituals, rationalizations, and mystifications.

Chapter 8 provides concrete examples of the tangible and intangible aspects of this maternal posture, looking at how real-life mothers attempt to process not just loss, but their own powerlessness over their reproductive lives. Lower-class women’s lack of control over reproduction, situated between policy and culture, will become an important theme throughout Death Without Weeping.

Chapter 9 examines the disconnect between norms regarding motherhood between the author and her subjects. The author makes clear her intention to identify with the women of the Alto, despite the great differences that existence between their views. The author’s intention for this chapter is socio-historically contextualize these views, and Scheper-Hughes details how views on infant care have changed over the past 200 years, associated with the fall of infant mortality.

Chapter 10 shifts the narrative to three half-sisters, Biu, Lordes, and Antoinetta, exploring how the social system necessitates unique “tactics” of survival, which vary from woman to woman. The dangers and tragedies of motherhood represent a common fixture in this context; nevertheless, each woman has her distinct “knack” for getting through life. An element of this “knack” is navigating a social world which offers little support to them and their families.

Chapter 11 primarily describes the onset of carnaval, from the perspective of the residents of both Bom Jesus and the Alto. In addition to describing the history of the festival, the author theorizes its significance for the residents of the Northeast. In a society characterized by repression and silence, the author argues that carnaval represents an opportunity for social protest and community expression, typically disallowed in the Northeast’s culture of silence.

The effect on, and reaction to, this culture of silence predominates Chapter 12, the final chapter of Death Without Weeping. In this chapter, the author discusses how strategies of collective action among the residents of the Alto and the Northeast are blended with religious practices. In this treatment, the movement of “liberation theology” plays a significant role.

Liberation theology, the author describes, represents the effort to infuse the teachings of the Catholic Church with social consciousness, and a focus towards effecting justice on earth. In this respect, liberation theology takes a stand both against what it perceives to be the material and economic injustices of the status quo as well as conventional Catholicism. The belief is that the Church “hierarchy” (as the author describes it), caters more to the spiritual needs of its richer citizens, offering the poor only rationalizations of the status quo, and remaining silent on fundamental questions of justice and inequality. Like carnaval, the “new Church” exemplified by liberation theology is subversive and community-based, openly and brazenly calling out the powers that be.

However, the author’s optimism is tempered by the role traditional belief systems play in the cultural context of the Northeast, systems that provide consolation and meaning amidst violence, fear, and despair. Despite the explicit focus of this book, infant mortality is but one of the host of social problems facing the Northeast, a region that emphasizes a society built on disempowerment and dependency. As the book closes, the author poses the question of whether or not the ability to reclaim some meaning from these tragedies represents a reclamation of power by the Nordestinos, or only the deferment of real change.

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