Melodrama and the social imagination

Melodrama, says Matthew Bush, does not get the respect it deserves in the world of literature.

In books and movies, Bush acknowledges, a melodramatic work typically favors broad strokes over subtlety. Its plots are often contrived and its characters stereotyped. It makes a transparent appeal to the emotions and relies heavily on exaggeration, even sensationalism.

Nonetheless, Bush, an assistant professor of Spanish in the department of modern languages and literature, confesses to a long-time fondness for melodrama. He especially enjoys the theatricality of the telenovelas, or soap operas, that are popular throughout Latin America and increasingly in the United States as well.

Bush is the author of Pragmatic Passions: Melodrama and Latin American Social Narrative, which analyzes novels by five Latin-American writers. The book was published late last year by Iberoamericana / Vervuert of Frankfurt and Madrid.

In Pragmatic Passions, Bush maintains that melodrama is utilized in high and low culture alike to highlight injustices while chronicling and reflecting trends in society and politics.

“People tend to think that melodrama is simplistic,” says Bush, “and that it is just for passive consumption, which supposedly typifies popular culture. That’s not necessarily the case. Melodrama plays on people’s anxieties and on their thinking about the way society works.”

A critical role in serious literature

Pragmatic Passions devotes one chapter to each of the following books: The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes of Mexico, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado of Brazil, Doña Barbara by Rómulo Gallegos of Venezuela, Tungsten by César Vallejo of Peru and Bewitched by Love by Roberto Arlt of Argentina. Most of these literary works have inspired either telenovela, film or theatrical adaptations, says Bush, and several have been adapted to the screen more than once.

“The authors whom I analyze in my book are some of the most renowned in Latin America,” says Bush. “Many readers would probably hesitate to categorize these works as melodrama because melodrama is seen as being cheap; it can’t be high art.

“But melodrama is not just employed in popular genres; it’s also employed by the so-called great authors. ‘High’ and popular culture both use similar elements to tell a story. I’m not trying to save or validate melodrama, but to say that it operates in a serious way, even if we’re not conscious of it, and that it is something central to our social imagination.”

In The Death of Artemio Cruz, says Bush, Fuentes examines the history of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 through the life of the title character, first a soldier and later a tycoon. Episodes illustrating Cruz’s life are told through the romances with different women that he has throughout his career. The book was published in 1962.

Artemio Cruz attempts to trace the process of the corruption of the ideals of the Mexican Revolution,” says Bush. “It does this through flashback scenes showing Cruz as he was growing up. The entire story is told through the memories of a man on his deathbed, which creates a hyper-emotional context. The story involves romance, intrigue and corruption, which, of course, are common in melodrama.

“Overall, the book would reflect Fuentes’ perception that the revolution was taken over by political elites who grew increasingly corrupt.”

Change comes to Brazil's cacao industry

Gabriela, says Bush, is a look at a transitional period in Brazil’s history by a writer who was going through his own transition. The story is set in Brazil’s Bahia region in 1925, at a time when a young politician is attempting to modernize the cacao industry and challenging the old-guard, land-holding classes in the process.

Amado wrote Gabriela in 1958, when he was 46, several years after leaving Brazil’s Communist Party. The novel, says Bush, represented a break with the overtly ideological influence of the author’s earlier works.

“Amado was well-known for his connections to radical politics,” says Bush. “This showed up conspicuously in his early writings, which were emphatically political and focused on the plight of the people and on the oppressive land-holding classes in Brazil.

“In Gabriela, Amado is very subtle. He does not paint characters or events in black and white. The book is not directly political but it still makes political points in a much more nuanced way.”

The two groups competing for power in Gabriela, says Bush, are not presented as stark contrasts; they differ only in their methods of obtaining political power. The land-holders use violence to gain power and hold onto it, while their young challengers prefer political influence.

“Gabriela has a romance that plays out through the entire novel. She represents the character of Brazil that remains as a constant throughout the changing from old to new guard. And the constant she represents is the Brazilian people.”

The melodrama in Amado’s novel—Gabriela’s romance—is secondary to the main story, says Bush. “Gabriela’s romance is window dressing that reflects what’s happening in Brazil at a crucial time of economic and social change.”

Bush sees “important and evident connections” between the Latin American novels he analyzed and the novels of such 19th-century British authors as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.

“The settings and social conditions may be totally different,” he says, “but all the authors use sentimentality as a means of examining social practices and conventions—the effects of industrialism in Dickens’ case, the role of manners and feminine agency in Austen’s case.”

Like their Latin American peers, says Bush, Dickens and Austen wrote novels that not only convey an emotionally fulfilling story, but also move readers to think about different social trends while they obtained pleasure from the text.

“Whether it’s a book by Dickens or Gallegos, Austen or Arlt, readers can take something more than just sentimentality from a melodrama. They read a book that reflects the society the characters live in.”