World Literature: Touch in Pedro Paramo and Dom Casmurro
In novels as sensual as Pedro Paramo and Dom Casmurro, it is not surprising that the authors employ a variety of literary techniques and imagery. Amongst them, not as prominent as the sense of hearing but still salient, is the sense of touch. I will examine how narrators in Dom Casmurro and Pedro Paramo use the sense of touch to reveal their inner motivations and feelings about a situation or character. Touch can symbolize relationships. When two characters touch shoulders in Pedro Paramo, for example, this seems to show siblinghood.
Juan and Abundio walk “side by side, so close [their] shoulders [are] nearly touching” (5). Juan and Abundio turn out to be half brothers. They share a father and are nearly brothers, just as their shoulders nearly touch, but their different mothers create both a genetic and physical gap between them. Later in the story, Donis’s sister “[goes] to stand beside him, leaning against his shoulder” (53). Their shoulders do not merely touch, which would confirm that they are siblings; she leans against Donis, suggesting their relationship extends beyond a familial one.
Although this has already been strongly implied, Donis’s sister leans against Donis before asking Juan whether he truly understands the relationship between her and Donis. Rulfo has already revealed that they are incestuous, but the action coupled with her question shows that neither the reader nor Juan realizes fully the nature of this relationship. Like Rulfo, Machado de Assis uses one way of touching, in his case, men brushing against Capitu’s arms, in different situations. This results in different repercussions. Capitu’s shapely arms draw attention whenever she and Bento attend balls.
However, during the first night they are merely admired and when other men touch her it seems incidental, innocuous: “however much they might touch other frock coats” (183). Bento mentions this touch fleetingly. His focus is on Capitu’s arms, not male attention. On the second night, the men are crasser, going from admiring to staring, “almost begging for them, and brushed their black sleeves against them” (183). Bento lingers more on the males’ touching and less on Capitu’s arms, like he is more concerned about the attention his wife is garnering than the object of the attention.
The details he notes also speak of his uneasiness. Whereas during the first night, the men wear gentlemanly frock coats, the second night they are dressed in black, which can symbolize evilness. As a matter of fact, detail is used in both Dom Casmurro and Pedro Paramo by the narrators to reveal their feelings about other characters. When either narrator describes the touching at length, or notices even the smallest aspects of it, he shows how important this touch is to him. As young Pedro Paramo and Susana San Juan fly kites together, Pedro urges, “‘Help me, Susana. ’ And soft hands would tighten on [his]” (12).
The fact that Pedro notes Susana’s hands are soft suggests that he harbours a liking for her, for to notice her soft hands, he would need to pay more attention to her hands than the string he is letting out or the kite he is flying. This action is also indicative of their relationship. Susana is Pedro’s lifelong love, and though she enjoys his company and likes him, it is only as a friend. Thus, while she is simply happy to fly kites with him and tightens her hands around his only to help him let out more string, Pedro takes note of how she acts around him and treasures her harmless actions.
They appear much more meaningful to him than to her. Machado de Assis uses details in very similar circumstances. As Bento combs Capitu’s hair, “[his] fingers [brush] her neck, or her back with its cotton dress: it [is] a delicious sensation” (64). He does not simply concentrate on the task at hand, he takes pleasure in accidental touches, no matter how minor, just like Pedro. While this can show the reader his sexual inexperience, as he has not seemed to have had a romantic encounter previously and thus enjoys a seemingly chaste activity, it also shows his affection for Capitu.
If Bento was combing the hair of another girl, he may not notice such minor details. The contact may also not feel as delicious. He also touches Capitu although it is not necessary to do so. Even if this is accidental, he does not make a move to shy away from it, suggesting that he wants to touch Capitu and likes her in a more-than-platonic fashion. The fact that he brushes her hair is also significant. Hair is considered a symbol of femininity, especially long hair. Combing her hair could put Bento in a position of power.
In fact, in the chapter after he combs her hair, Bento “[utters] these proud words: ‘I am a man! ’” (67). Hair is important when looking at their history, as well. When Bento thinks about his and Capitu’s past, he remembers how she “ran her hand through [his] hair, saying she thought it was very beautiful” (24). However, he never reciprocated. By touching him so, and through other gestures such as counting his fingers, Capitu demonstrates her affection for him and shows that she is aware of her fondness.
Bento remains oblivious, though, as shown by his lack of response. After he realizes that he too feels warmly about Capitu, he asks to brush her hair, proving both to himself and Capitu that he is finally aware of his feelings. In Dom Casmurro, touch can reveal character traits. Ezequiel is shown to be a warm and affectionate boy: “Ezequiel hugged [Bento’s] knees, stood up on the tips of his toes, as if to climb up and give [Bento] his usual kiss” (229). He is comfortable with touching his father, and does so regularly to illustrate his love.
This can be contrasted with Jose Dias who, even when everyone else is hugging and kissing Bento farewell, remains “composed and grave” (98) and does not touch Bento at all. Jose Dias is not cold, but occasionally his respect and charm seem debatably genuine. Moments such as when he does not hug Bento farewell add on to this idea. In Pedro Paramo, Juan Preciado does not touch the residents of Comala when he arrives. He cannot; they are ghosts while he is still alive. Donis’s sister touching his shoulder is the first time touch occurs in Juan’s Comala. She is also the first living person he encounters.
Although there is some disagreement over whether Juan actually died when “[his] soul turned to ice” (59), the fact that Dorotea is dead and lying in his arms, touching him, suggests that if he can touch the dead, then he is dead also. Moments of change are expressed through touch as well. After Bento sees that Capitu carved ‘Bento and ‘Capitolina’ into the wall, their hands “[took] hold of each other, clasping each other, melting into one another” (28). Whereas previously mutual touching was done in childish jest, and Bento was oblivious to Capitu’s attraction to him, now they touch each other with the ntention of holding hands like lovers. “Melting into one another” (28) can also show how they are thinking as one – they both feel the same way toward each other. When Donis leaves, Juan wakes up beside Donis’s sister. The majority of the tactile imagery thus far has been brief and subtle, but here Juan can “feel the woman’s naked legs against [his] knee, and her breath upon [his] face” (55). After being unable to touch the ghosts, Juan is all of a sudden pressed against a woman, a gesture that stands out from previous paragraphs due to its straight-forwardness.
For Juan, it appears that the physical contact is like having to take care of the woman; neither pleasant nor unpleasant, simply thrust-upon and unexpected. Unlike in Dom Casmurro, even feelings about environment can be revealed through touch in Pedro Paramo. As Juan approaches Comala, he observes that he and Abundio “[have] left the hot wind behind and [are] sinking into pure, airless heat. The stillness [seems] to be waiting for something” (5). While this airless heat adds on to the atmosphere, it also shows Juan’s state of mind.
The surroundings in this scene mirror Juan’s mood, showing that he is waiting for something too. He may not expect to find his father, but he is coming with Comala with expectations, and the closer he gets to the town, the closer he is to finding out the truth. The sense of touch is an important tool in both Pedro Paramo and Dom Casmurro. It can reveal aspects of character personality, relationships and inner thoughts and motivations. This symbolism, coupled with the other literary techniques Machado de Assis and Rulfo employ, helps create the vivid alternate reality of the novels. Word count: 1470 words