The Hour of the Star Summary

Clarice Lispector

The Hour of the Star

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The Hour of the Star Summary

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Brazilian author Clarice Lispector’s novel The Hour of the Star (A Hora da Estrela) was published shortly before her death in 1977. Lispector drew on personal experiences from her childhood in northeast Brazil as well as her life in Rio de Janeiro. The book’s eight brief chapters were compiled by Lispector and her friend and assistant, Olga Borelli, from notes Lispector had written on scraps of paper. The Hour of the Star explores issues of sexism and poverty and raises philosophical questions about the nature of existence and the formation of identity as it follows the life of  “pathetic” Macabéa in the slums of Rio. Both the story’s narrator, Rodrigo S.M., and Macabéa struggle to find themselves and answer the question, “Who am I?”

Cultured and worldly, Rodrigo S.M. addresses the reader directly in The Hour of the Star. He opens the novel with an extended discussion about the act of writing a story. He declares that it takes great effort for him to achieve simplicity in his writing and that the material he is writing about is “mundane” and the details of his characters are “sparse.” Yet, Rodrigo S.M. writes, “If there is any truth in it—and clearly the story is true even though invented—let everyone see it reflected in himself for we are all one and the same person.” Rodrigo S.M.’s words are the only lens through which the reader views Macabéa.

Rodrigo S.M. claims that he was inspired to write this story when he saw a girl on a street in Rio de Janeiro with a “glimpse of perdition” on her face. So was born his character, Macabéa, a nineteen-year-old, skinny, poor, ugly, smelly, blotchy-skinned, unwanted virgin and subpar typist from Alagoas, the northeast region of Brazil. Rodrigo S.M. writes that nobody desires Macabéa, and nobody needs her. He muses that he doesn’t need her either, Macabea’s story could be written by another man—a writer “of course”—but not a woman. A woman would “weep her heart out.” Through Macabéa, Rodrigo S.M. “screams his horror” of the life he loves.

A sickly child, Macabéa was raised by her abusive aunt in northern Alagoas. Now she is just one of the thousands of “superfluous” working girls that no one cares about. She lives with four other coworkers, all named Maria, in a one-room apartment in a poor section of the city. Rodrigo S.M. doesn’t understand why, despite her extreme poverty and miserable existence, Macabéa is happy. Macabéa eats hot dogs, loves Coca-Cola, enjoys collecting advertisements that she cuts out of newspapers, paints her nails, and wishes she could be Marilyn Monroe.

Put off by Macabéa’s impoverished condition and borderline illiteracy, Rodrigo says she should have stayed in the backwoods. He claims that if Macabéa were asked the question “Who am I?” she would fall apart because that question creates a “need.” The way to satisfy that need is self-examination; Rodrigo S.M. warns, “To probe oneself is to recognize that one is incomplete.” Yet, he wants to write about Macabéa. Without writing, Rodrigo S.M. says that he would “die symbolically each day.” Macabéa does occasionally go window-shopping in wealthy neighborhoods. Looking at jewelry and beautiful gowns, she “mortifies” herself, knowing that she needs “to find herself and suffering a little is a way of finding.”

Macabéa begins dating Olímpico, a macho metal worker who is also from northeast Brazil. Olímpico has high social ambitions. He wishes to be a butcher, make lots of money, and become a politician. Rodrigo S.M. describes Olímpico as coming from a “savage” way of life; Olímpico has killed another man. Olímpico’s stepfather taught him to get what he wants—including women—by “ingratiating” himself with people. Olímpico is physically abusive to Macabéa and belittles her constantly. Eventually, Olímpico dumps Macabéa in favor of her coworker, Glória. Glória is not especially attractive, either, but she boasts that she is descended from a privileged social class in southern Brazil, which appeals to Olímpico, as does the little swagger to her walk, and the fact that her father is a butcher.

Feeling guilty about stealing Macabéa’s boyfriend, Glória suggests she visit the same fortuneteller who gave Glória the good news that she and Olímpico would hook up. Macabéa first goes to a doctor, who, unfortunately, has a profound antipathy for his poverty-stricken patients. Unhelpfully, the doctor tells Macabéa that she needs psychiatric help, she needs to eat more, and she is in the early stages of pulmonary tuberculosis. None of this makes sense to Macabéa.

The fortuneteller, however, has much better news for her. Before telling Macabéa her fortune, Madame Carlota first describes her own past and her experiences as a brawling prostitute and the madame of a brothel. Madame Carlota then recaps Macabéa’s unpleasant life, which surprises Macabéa who didn’t think it was so bad. Madame Carlota tells Macabéa that things are about to change for the better: Macabéa is going to keep her job as a typist and a handsome foreigner named Hans will sweep into her life bringing love and wealth. Macabéa believes Madame Carlota and is filled with hope for the future. As she leaves the fortuneteller, she steps off the curb into the street and is promptly run over by a yellow Mercedes.

As she lies bleeding on the side of the road in the rain, surrounded by onlookers who aren’t offering any help, Macabéa is, at last, the center of attention, a “film star.” Rodrigo S.M. debates whether he should save Macabéa or kill her, eventually deciding in favor of Death, whom he says is one of his favorite characters. Rodrigo S.M. meditates on Macabéa’s death and existence, observing that now, Macabéa simply “is not.”