Rodrigo S.M. is not your typical narrator, because he doesn't just tell a story. He agonizes about how to tell it. And if that weren't enough, he agonizes about everything else too. And if that weren't enough, he tells us about everything he agonizes about. In fact, our narrator is so chatty that we sometimes start to suspect him of being the protagonist.
So, if Rodrigo has so much trouble with this whole writing business, why is he doing it in the first place?
Duty, dear Shmoop-a-nauts. Rodrigo is an affluent, cosmopolitan man—so, total opposite of Macabéa—who has somehow decided that it's his duty to write about her, and about the "thousands of others like her" (1.9). He feels obligated to tell this story because he wants us to know that that the story of Macabéa is "real," and that she represents a population of young girls who are struggling with poverty, and this is real too.
The only problem is, he has a lot of difficulty getting started. The first two chapters of the novella are basically him "warming up before making a start, rubbing [his] hands together to summon up [his] courage" (1.14). And by rubbing his hands together, we mean floating Big Questions about life, meaning, morality, existence, blah blah zzzz.
Okay, obviously these are important questions. But you have to admit that this narrator takes himself really seriously.
At the same time, it's nice to see that he's trying to take his task of writing seriously, too. In other words, he's concerned about exploiting this girl. "I am a man who possesses more money than those who go hungry," he says, "and this makes me in some ways dishonest" (1.31). In other words, he suspects that there's something a little hinky about the way he's treating Macabéa like an object to be dissected, discussed, and displayed—and, you know, literally sacrified. By a Mercedes.
When Rodrigo S.M. finally gets started telling Macabéa's story, he has trouble staying on track. He constantly interrupts the action to insert his own little commentary, so we never forget that he's the one telling the story. It's almost as if he wants to be in control of the story without getting really involved in it—maybe because he recognizes his own role in creating Macabéa's substandard social circumstances. (Check out "Tone" to learn more about this guilty narrator stuff.)
One thing the narrator doesn't have control over is his feelings for Macabéa. And they change over the course of his story.
When we start, Rodrigo seems intent on just telling the story as simply as possible. He claims to hold Macabéa at an objective distance: "It is true that I, too, feel no pity for my main character, the girl from the North-east: I want my story to be cold and impartial" (1.9). But this coldness eventually turns into concern and frustration: "The girl worries me so much that I feel drained. She has drained me empty. And the less she demands, the more she worries me. I feel frustrated and annoyed" (3.54).
Frustration? That eventually turns into writerly affection: "As the author, I alone love her" (3.58). Finally, that authorial love turns into romantic love: "Yes, I adore Macabéa, my darling Maca. I adore her ugliness and her total anonymity for she belongs to no one" (4.351).
So, how do we explain all these reversals? Well, one of his goals as a writer is to try to identify with his subject: "It's my obsession to become the other man. In this case, the other woman. Pale and feeling weak, I tremble just like her" (3.66). So, maybe the more he tries to identify with Macabéa, the more he empathizes with her. And the more he empathizes with her, the more he recognizes their similarities.
The point of all this isn't just to tell Macabéa's story—it's to convince us to face her reality, and by extension the reality of the millions of other people in similar circumstances all over the world. Oh, and also, he'd like us to acknowledge our own guilt.
Not easy, right? So, it's no wonder that he struggles. Even though he's the narrator and should have the power to write the story how he wants, it constantly seems to be slipping out of his hands.
That's clearest when Macabéa is hit by the car. Rodrigo argues with himself about whether or not Macabéa will die and he even seems tortured by this decision. But in the end, he gives in to what seems like an inevitable and hopeless fate: her death.
Rodrigo is a complex narrator, to say the least. One of the weirdest things is that "he" is actually a "she"—or at least, s/he is if you accept that the narrator's voice is basically a stand-in for the voice of Clarice Lispector. So we have to ask: why did Lispector choose a male narrator?