There have been many craft essays written over the last few decades arguing the merits of the classic Joyce-ian epiphany. In “Love,” (The Offing), Clarice Lispector (translated by Katrina Dodson) explores the nature of epiphanies, and perhaps more importantly, what we do with them once they happen.
We meet the protagonist Ana as she’s returning from the grocer. We find she is well settled into domestic life, where her familial responsibilities have insulated her from the broader world. Notice how Lispector illustrates this through Ana’s inability to conceive of her former self, before being a homemaker.
“What had happened to Ana before she had a home was forever out of reach: a restless exaltation so often mistaken for unbearable happiness. In exchange she had created something at last comprehensible, an adult life. That was what she had wanted and chosen.”
Ana wants a comprehensible life; she doesn’t want mystery, she wants understanding. She doesn’t want surprises, she wants control. Or at least a part of her does. Lispector reveals that at moments during each day, that domestic tranquility is threatened.
“A certain hour of the afternoon was more dangerous. A certain hour of the afternoon the trees she had planted would laugh at her. When nothing else needed her strength, she got worried.”
Ana’s comfort comes from being needed. Freedom from responsibility, on the other hand, is terrifying. While on the tram home from the grocer, while mulling over dinner with the family, an epiphany arrives, in the form of a blind man chewing gum.
“…her heart beat violently, at intervals. Leaning forward, she stared intently at the blind man, the way we stare at things that don’t see us. He was chewing gum in the dark. Without suffering, eyes open…”
Ana falls over unexpectedly, the tram stops, and life goes on for everyone else. But we discover through Lispector’s interior development that, though the action is mundane, this moment with the blind man was epiphanic for Ana.
“…could she have forgotten there were blind people? Compassion was suffocating her…”
She sees the blind man as a human and not just recognizes, but feels his reality. Empathy. What’s so remarkable about this epiphany—and good epiphanies overall—is that it contains not just the character’s surprise at what new insight has hit them, but how that new insight critiques the past. With the epiphany, Ana discovers that though her controlled, comprehensible life has provided her peace, it has come at the price of feeling true empathy for others.
Lispector also suggests through the epiphany that truly empathizing with people outside of our social world and experience—the other—can shake the foundations on which we build their lives.
“She had pacified life so well, taken such care for it not to explode. She had kept it all in serene comprehension, separated each person from the rest, clothes were clearly made to be worn and you could choose the evening movie from the newspaper—everything wrought in such a way that one day followed another. And a blind man chewing gum was shattering it all to pieces.”
Many stories forget that new knowledge and understanding can be unsettling for people, even terrifying. With every change comes loss, and that loss is a frightening experience, especially if they love what they already have. For Lispector—and Ana—epiphanies aren’t pleasant things.
After Ana’s journey home—which includes a harrowing series of epiphanic passages in the garden in which she realizes her own mortality—Ana spends the evening with her husband and children and discovers that hours after meeting the blind man her entire life still feels foreign.
“Later, when everyone had gone and the children were already in bed, she was a brute woman looking out the window. The city was asleep and hot. Would whatever the blind man had unleashed fit into her days? How many years would it take for her to grow old again?”
In contemporary stories, epiphanies commonly occur during the climax of the story, followed by a swift denouement. The character learns something and is forever changed. But Lispector chooses to stay with Ana well afterwards—treating the epiphany more as an inciting incident—so we can see her struggle with integrating her new experiences into her present life, or better put, struggle against integrating them.
So will Ana’s life be forever changed? Will not just her afternoons, but her entire life become transformed by the knowledge that it exists in a broader, suffering world?
“…in a gesture that wasn’t his (her husband’s), but that seemed natural, he held his wife’s hand, taking her along without looking back, removing her from the danger of living.
The dizziness of benevolence was over.
And, if she had passed through love and its hell, she was now combing her hair before the mirror, for an instant with no world at all in her heart. Before going to bed, as if putting out a candle, she blew out the little flame of the day.”
There’s a powerful assertion in the ending here, not just in the beautiful image of the flame of the day being blown out, but that it’s Ana’s breath that’s doing the terrible work. It seems that for Lispector, regardless of where epiphanies come from, the onus is on the character—and us—to respond.