#LoveBooks: José de Alencar’s Iracema: A Tale of Love, Betrayal & Brazil

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, we are delighted to present you;

José de Alencar’s Iracema: A Tale of Love, Betrayal & Brazil

Iracema is a Romantic novel by José de Alencar which was first published in 1865. It is set in the Northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará during the first Portuguese incursions into the Americas. Edwin Johan Santana Gaarder looks at how the novel depicts the early years of the Brazilian nation.

Iracema© Luso-Brazilian Books

José de Alencar’s novel tells the story of Iracema, a native virgin, and Martim, a Portuguese coloniser who, despite the cultural barriers that separate them, fall in love. As a result, Iracema is forced to abandon her tribe, but her illusions of peaceful coexistence are shattered when she is herself abandoned by Martim, left only with their child. The tragic sorrow and sense of betrayal she feels eventually lead to her death.

Iracema (an anagram for América) has been read as an allegory for the birth of the Brazilian nation. Alencar, who was a leading figure amongst the Brazilian Romanticists, incorporates themes like colonialism, miscegenation, the clash of cultures, the war against indigenous peoples and migration. In the Brazilian state of Ceará and its capital Fortaleza, Alencar’s novella is treated with even more patriotic reverence, with statues of Iracema and Martim embellishing several points of Fortaleza’s beaches. Roads, buildings and neighbourhoods named after characters, places and events in the novella are also common in Ceará’s capital.


Alencar’s narrative uses predictable formulae, yet largely avoiding the clichés of Romanticism. The natural beauty and grace of the native virgin, Iracema is introduced to us by means of a bath, a scene of baptismal sensuality to which we are awkward guests. We share with the European intruder the guilt of the voyeur, but also the enchanting pain of being immobilised by that which is different and unknown, of being surprised over our own vulnerability. The exoticism, the difference between the European imperialism and the native virgin, induces the fascination between them, causing her lips to tremble: ‘Iracema tinha o lábio trêmulo, e úmida a pálpebra’. [Iracema’s lips were trembling, and her eyelids were humid]. To the modern reader, their passion follows the age-old truism according to which opposites naturally attract each other.


There is, moreover, an undertone of psychological realism that allows us to suspend our disbelief. The reader could perceive that, alongside the fantasies conjured up in a distant setting, the stupor of tropical drugs and the mysticism of a primitive culture, the novella is anchored by a familiar reality: a fiancée and a home. The foreigner reader thus chooses to uncover the secret of the virgin – ‘o segredo da jurema’ [jurema’s secret] – and indulge himself in a tropical dream. Will his blood continue to boil? Will he forever fear the eyes of his innocent lover? Or will he find himself saturated with pleasure and filled with a more powerful longing: ‘a saudade da pátria’ [homeland’s nostalgia]?

Lá o espera a virgem loura dos castos afetos; aqui lhe sorri a virgem morena dos ardentes amores.

[There he is expected by the blond virgin of chaste tenderness, while here the swarthy virgin of burning passion smiles at him]

In the story, the moment of sexual betrayal is an interplay between the cultural constructs built around the two races: white, dark; blonde, brunette; Christian, Indian; pragmatic, impulsive. It is also an example in microcosm of the tragic consequences of a failed relationship between two societies that never completely learnt to respect and trust each other, and also portrays the difficulties of melding different cultures. This dysfunctional coming together of cultures is intrinsic to the fear of the wise old Pajé: ‘…for album funesto presságio para a raça de seus filhos, que assim ecoou n’alma de Araquém?’ [… was it a tragic presage to his sons’ race echoing in Araquém’s soul?]

LoveStoryPeople believes in quiet moments for yourself. Take your time and read a book you wish.

Share your story with us using today’s hashtag #LoveBooks.



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