Except for Macabéa, everyone in this text is obsessed with class—critical of it, proud of it, or resentful of it. And feelings about class just as much as actual status help us figure out what's going on with the characters.
Take Rodrigo. We know that he's rich and fancy, but he's also really conflicted about it. He doesn't know if he deserves to write Macabéa's story, and he feels incredibly guilty that he's even got money in the first place: "I am a man who possesses more money than those who go hungry, and this makes me in some ways dishonest" (1.31).
Or Olímpico, who is from the same poor region as Macabéa but feels that he is "destined to go up in the world and join the privileged"—apparently by dumping Macabéa. It's his desire to move up in class as much as his actual class status that clues us into the fact that Olímpico is a big fat jerk.
Or Glória, who flaunts her class status as a privileged "carioca" (4.277). Sure, we learn something about her from her class status—but we learn more about her from the fact she makes sure that Olímpico knows about it, too. Like, we know that she's probably kind of shallow, and maybe not that nice.
Even the minor characters are preoccupied with social status. The doctor resents being a poor people's doctor, and his "dream [is] to earn enough money to do exactly what he pleased: nothing" (4.340). Or Madame Carlota, who has hustled her whole life to make ends meet and climb up the economic ladder and now flaunts her luxurious plastic décor and expensive chocolates (5.370).
And Macabéa? Macabéa is the poorest and most unfortunate of all the characters, and yet she is "aware of her own unhappiness. The only thing she desired was to live. … Perhaps she felt there was some glory in living. She thought that a person was obliged to be happy. So she was happy" (3.58). Happy without money, food, comforts, or ambitions to rise. Hm, it's almost as if her lack of concern about social status is what makes her the happiest character in the book.
It makes sense that, in a novel where the main character is starving, food is an important clue to character. Our narrator, for example, has decided to live more frugally in order to better identify with his subject, Macabéa—but check out how he decides to live frugally: he eats fruit and drinks chilled white wine. Rough life, right? In the second-to-last line of the novella, he reminds us that it's strawberry season. Fruit and wine are finer foods and a reflection of the fact that our narrator is a man "who possesses more money than those who go hungry" (1.31).
Glória also has a good relationship to food. She enjoys "a hot meal at the same hour every day," something we understand is a luxury (4.279), and the narrator makes an explicit connection between Glória's social status and her ability to eat: "In the foul disorder of a third-class suburban bourgeoisie one could still count upon eating well, for most of their money was spent on food" (4.324). When Macabéa accepts Glória's invitation to tea, Glória is able to offer Macabéa hot chocolate, sugared buns, and a cake—all little luxuries "intended for the rich" that, of course, end up making Macabéa sick (4.325).
So what does Macabéa eat? Hot dogs, sometimes a mortadella sandwich, coffee, and soft drinks. The doctor says her diet is pure neurosis, as if he's accusing her of being anorexic instead of just, you know, poor and malnourished. She even goes to bed hungry: "Sometimes before falling asleep she felt the pangs of hunger and became quite giddy as she visualized a side of beef. The solution was to chew paper into pulp and swallow it. Honestly!" (3.74).
This emphasis on food helps characterize Macabéa in contrast to the other characters around her. No one else seems to have such food insecurity. Starvation sets her apart, and it stands in for the spiritual and emotional hunger that characterizes her poor, miserable existence.
When Olímpico asks Macabéa her name for the first time, he tells her that her name sounds like a skin disease. Macabéa, who also doesn't seem too thrilled with her name, explains how she was given that name: "… it's the name my mother gave me because of a vow she made to Our Lady of Sorrows if I should survive. For the first year of my life, I wasn't called anything because I didn't have a name. I'd have preferred to go on being called nothing instead of a having a name that nobody has ever heard of, yet it seems to suit me … as you can see, I'm still here … so that's that" (3.123).
What Macabéa is trying to say (we think) is that her name is a message of hope and survival. It comes from the Biblical Macabees, a tribe that fought against the Greeks to preserve their Judaism. The name of the tribe comes from Hebrew word for "hammer," and they were said to strike their enemies like a hammer. Despite all the odds against her, Macabéa has survived—and, now that the narrator has immortalized her, will continue to survive.
Olímpico also has a powerful name (although we have to say we prefer Macabéa's kind of power). Evoking the Greek Mount Olympus, his name conveys the kind of strength that, well, he lacks. And he seems to know that he's inadequate, because he can't help trying to make his name sound fancier. He tells Macabéa that it's "Olímpico de Jesus Moreira Chaves" even though his real name is simply Olímpico de Jesus. A self-important liar with dreams of grandeur? Sounds like our Olímpico.
And then, of course, there are the Marias, Macabéa's roommates. Named Maria de Penha, Maria Aparecida, Maria José, and plain Maria, they're literally the same. Like thousands of poor, young, city girls, they're indistinguishable from each other.
Except, the narrator hints, that if we were to look into their souls, we might find that they were all as luminous as Macabéa.