Compare and contrast the
“202” and the country estate in Eça de Queiroz’s “The City and the Mountains”.
How do they help to convey the challenges that Modernity poses to Portuguese
society?

 

 

 

The novel, “The City and the Mountains”, is one of Eça de Queiroz’s later novels, written in the later years of his
life whilst living in Paris. In the 19th century, Paris was one of the world’s
leading cities in terms of wealth and technology, and was experiencing an era of
great economic and social growth. The central character is Jacinto, and the events are narrated by Jacinto’s close friend José
Fernandes, commonly known as Zé
Fernandes. Jacinto is a wealthy fully
indulged Portuguese man who lives in his luxurious mansion at 202 Av. des
Champs-Elysees in Paris. His main and all consuming interests relate to
technology and information, and his wealth enables him to obsessively indulge
in his belief that absolute knowledge and absolute power will result in
absolute happiness.1
Eventually his material pursuits lead him to mistrust this formula, as he fails
to achieve the satisfaction and happiness he had anticipated, becoming
depressed and disinterested in city life.

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Meanwhile, Portugal, with
agriculture and small scale industry still prevailing, remained somewhat
detached from the wealth and sophistication of Paris. The novel has a very
simple structure, with a strong focus on equal coverage: firstly, of the “202”
and the period in Paris, and secondly, of the period at the country estate in
Portugal.

When Jacinto returns home to Portugal and to his country estate in
Tormes, he experiences a “spiritual rebirth”2 and his life perspectives change, enabling him to
appreciate the simplicities of Portuguese life. When comparing the above two
places in the novel, the author presents a strong life contrast in almost every
aspect, and generally presents Portugal in a positive light and Paris in a negative
one. Through the actions and experiences of Jacinto,
the reader can see people, colour, smells, and food, amongst other factors,
used as tools by Eça de Queiroz to
highlight differences between the chaotic city of Paris and the peaceful
mountains of Portugal, and more specifically the “202” mansion and the country
estate. In this essay I am going to look at each of these differences, and show
how they illustrate the challenges that modernity posed to Portuguese society
during that period.

 

The contrast between the city of
Paris and the mountains of Portugal is made clear by descriptions of the
characters and outlook of people who live there. The Parisian population is,
more often than not, depicted as being gloomy and sickly-looking, and trapped
in their monotonous routines. People in the city are deemed to lack identity
and individuality, merely existing, being described as “sheep treading the same
track, bleating the same bleat, their snouts in the dust through which they
troop, always stepping in the footsteps of others.”3 This
image contrasts dramatically with that of the inhabitants of the Portuguese
mountains. These people are described as being independent, happy, healthy and
attractive. Zé Fernandes notes that
these characteristics become apparent in Jacinto’s
nature and even physical appearance once he has left Paris and acclimatises to
the life and culture of Portugal. Whilst living in Paris, Jacinto becomes overwhelmed by the vastness and repetitiveness of
the city,4
resulting in him rarely going outside, seeking the comforts of modernity and
civilisation from his own home, in which he relies on his luxurious elevator to
take him between his two floors.5
Zé Fernandes notes that Jacinto’s eyes “no longer sparkled with
their old vivacity.”6
 Through this lifestyle we see
him become weak and frail, aging significantly with his hair thinning and his
skin wrinkling. However, as soon as he returns to the mountains of Portugal, he
is able to find fulfilment and satisfaction in simple living, and his youthful
appearance returns to him, with Zé
Fernandes comparing him to a plant taken from a dark corner and put in
fresh air where it can bud and blossom.7 By the
end of the novel we see Jacinto
happily married with two healthy children of his own. Through this contrast it
is made clear to us that life is not only more enjoyable in the countryside of
Portugal, but also healthier and better for you both physically and
mentally.  We can see that modernity and
indulgence in materialism does not bring happiness, as people like Jacinto at the start of the book perhaps
believe.

 

Eça de Queiroz uses contrasting visual descriptions
when presenting Paris and Portugal to the reader. In “The City and the Mountains”, and in particular the “202” and the
country estate, the use of colour in the novel has a big effect on the way the
two places are shown. A series of greys dominates the impersonal city layout of
Paris with emphasis on its masses of grey houses and grey streets. This shows
Paris in a negative, pessimistic light, and one which appears cold and hard.
This image is in stark contrast to the brilliant white houses and colourful
gardens in the countryside of native Portugal. The focus on weather conditions
contributes to such contrasts, with Paris commonly cloudy and wet, and with
Portugal dominated by bright sun and blue skies. Jacinto and Zé experience
constant rain through their journey from the “202” mansion in Paris to the
country estate in Tormes. This rain lasts through France and Spain, only
clearing as they arrive at the Portuguese border. It is here where the clouds
clear, revealing the clear blue skies and the shining Portuguese sun.8
The bad weather and darkness appears to be spreading from Paris, representing
the ever increasing influences of modernity on the rest of Europe; it threatens
to spread to Portugal which is, as yet, mostly untouched and is still able to
enjoy the happiness harvested from the simplicity of rural life.

 

These visual contrasts are also seen in the “202” mansion
and the country estate. Jacinto’s
library in the “202” is very big and well organised yet rigid and impersonal,
and in this regard much like the structure of the streets of Paris and its
houses. The countless number of rare, specialised tools and equipment, together
with the 30,000 books filling the cold and dark library, created a suffocating
environment. The sheer quantity of material prevented Jacinto from ever being able to take full advantage of his
treasure, and left him constantly chasing his impossible dreams of academic
perfection. The library is described in the book as a “shadowy temple” with
“dark laurel green” dominating all parts of the house such as Jacinto’s study.9
In the country estate however, everything is much simpler with rooms having
bright whitewashed walls and tables covered in simple linen cloth creating a
warm and welcoming environment.10
The huge library in the “202” is also replaced with a simple “reading room”
in the country estate in Tormes.11

Zé Fernandes, towards the start of the novel, and
after a seven year period without seeing Jacinto,
revisits 202 Av. des Champs-Elysees to see him, and notes that, “during
those seven years, nothing had changed in the nature of the garden of No. 202!”12  This image serves to emphasise the theme
of rigidity and the suffocating nature of the city, as even a garden, a place
of nature, has had the freedom and life removed from it by the modernity of the
city. In contrast, the countryside in Portugal introduces Jacinto to the unique beauty of everything nature has to offer: “I
would never find in nature an ugly or repeated shape! No two leaves of ivy, as
regards colour or form, were ever the same! In the City, on the other hand, each
house slavishly repeats the other houses… Sameness, that’s what’s so dreadful
about Cities!”13
 Jacinto mentions the chestnut tree he has passed daily for the past
three weeks, and notes that every time he sees it, it looks different. He
further stresses that the tree is a great “conversationalist” giving him new
ideas and thoughts, each time he passes it.14
By means of these contrasts, Eça
presents the countryside as more stimulating than the city, suggesting that
life is purer and freer away from the technology and modernity that dominate
and control Paris and Jacinto’s
luxurious 202 Av. des Champs-Elysees.

 

The smells and cleanliness of Paris
and Portugal are also contrasted. In the comforts of his luxurious home in
Paris, Jacinto is afraid to drink the
tap water, due to the risks of contamination from the city’s water systems. In
his house he has many jugs of different types of water prepared in different
ways, but he says he is yet to find one that satisfies him.15 City
contamination is further evident in the pollution dominating the air which thus
makes breathing  in Paris all the more
unpleasant, and is one of the factors keeping Jacinto indoors, particularly in the period building up to his
return to Portugal. In the mountains of Portugal, Jacinto’s water struggles are put behind him and he takes great
delight in the mountain streams from which he can safely drink and enjoy for
its purity and fresh taste. Indeed, one of the first things Jacinto notices when he arrives in
Portugal is that his native country smells nicer than Paris due to its cleaner
air.16 The
contrast between the contamination and purity in Paris and Portugal represents
the respective presence and absence of modernity, which has imposed itself on
life in Paris resulting in a more toxic atmosphere literally as well as
figuratively, potentially threatening wellbeing of mankind. The image of
contamination spreading into the air and water gives the worrying impression
that this contamination will spread to Tormes and the Portuguese countryside,
imposing modernity and development which will have negative effects on the
happiness and quality of life there.  

 

Another major contrast between the
two places is seen in food. The food chosen and available in Paris, and that in
the mountains of Portugal are seen in the novel to be very different, as is Jacinto’s attitude and appetite towards
it. Back In Paris, in the opening chapters of the book, luxurious and exotic
dishes are seen to be on a menu in the dining hall of Jacinto’s mansion for his friends that night.17 Zé asks why the iced oranges on Jacinto’s menu are served in ether, to
which Jacinto replies, “It’s a new
thing. Apparently the ether develops and brings out the soul of the fruit.”18  Zé
also asks him whether some of the other dishes on the menu taste good, but Jacinto shrugs and admits he has not had
an appetite for food in a long time.19
Previously the people of Paris were highlighted as “sheep treading the same track,
bleating the same bleat…”20 which
is quite fitting of Jacinto who
admits not to be passionate about such dishes but feels compelled to follow the
Parisian food trends of the time. It is clear he has no knowledge or
understanding about the effects of ether on iced oranges, yet blindly follows
the fashion.

 

When first returning to Portugal,
he is served much simpler traditional meals, and he approaches them with eyes
“dimmed by pessimism” whilst taking a “timid forkful.”21  This is representative of the feeling of
superiority that the city has over a rural way of life, already looking down on
others without knowing what they are all about. This ignorance and judgement
results in great surprise when Jacinto
realises that the countryside has actually out-smarted Paris by producing food
far nicer and more nutritious than anything he experienced in the city. The
local food and the wine of Tormes is so good, Jacinto finally gets his appetite back, with Zé noting that he “really did seem to be satisfying an ancient
hunger and a long nostalgia for such abundance.”22

 

It is clear that by means of his
book, “The City and the Mountains”, Eça de Queiroz shows a disapproval of
modernity and life in Paris, and promotes rural life as illustrated in the
mountains of Portugal. The way Jacinto
bursts into Portugal, enthusiastically forcing his ideas upon others, such as
his methods to eradicate poverty, is representative of modernity and urban life
trying to force its change upon others.23
Through the actions of Jacinto,
Eça is sadly warning Portugal of the
inevitable spread of modernity which will eventually devalue its way of life.
When we look at Paris and the “202”,
and see the sorry state of Jacinto
before he returned to Portugal, it is clear that this kind of development would
be a step backwards in the high quality of life and happiness that a rural life
in the mountains has to offer. At the time of writing this novel, Eça de Queiroz was in the later stages
of his life and living in Paris, having travelled across the world and seen
many different places in his lifetime.24 In
previous works, Eça had traditionally
been very critical of Portuguese society but in his later works such as “The City and the Mountains” and “The Illustrious House of Ramires” he
seems to have changed his mind. It
appears that he was getting tired and worn out by city life hence further
enforcing his appreciation of his homeland of Portugal and the simplistic
lifestyle that prevails. Some say that Eça
still holds these critical views in “The
City and the Mountains” but displays them more subtly with Jacinto who represents modernity being
able to improve to some extent the quality of life for others on the country
estate.25
However, the most significant change we see in the novel is the change in the
character of Jacinto who becomes
rejuvenated in the mountains of Portugal after deeply suffering in Paris in a
world of modernity. Through the changes in Jacinto’s
character and the contrasts between the “202” and the country estate, it is
clear that the novel “The City and the
Mountains” is a warning to Portugal of the spread of modernity across the
country.

1 Eça de Queiroz, The City and the Mountains, trans.
Margaret Jull Costa (United Kingdom:
Dedalus Ltd, 2008), p. 19.

 

2  Peggy Sharp Valadares, The City in Five Major Novels of Eça de Queiroz (Ph.D. The
University of New Mexico, 1981), p. 212.

 

3 Eça de Queiroz, p. 87.

 

4 David G. Frier, Who Wrote the rules? Consumers and
consumption in Eça’s A cidade e as serras and Saramago’s A caverna (Luso-Brazilian Review, Volume 51, 2014)

 

5 Eça de Queiroz, p. 27.

 

6 Ibid., p. 29.

7 Peggy Sharp Valadares, p. 247-248

 

8 Ibid., p. 243.

 

9 Eça de Queiroz, p. 28

 

10 Ibid., p. 153.

 

11 Ibid., p. 155.

 

12 Ibid., p. 27.

13 Ibid., p. 157.

 

14 Ibid., pp. 157-58.

 

15 Ibid., p. 35

 

16 Peggy Sharp Valadares, p. 242.

17 Eça de Queiroz, pp. 33-6.

 

18 Ibid., p. 36

 

19 Ibid., p. 36. 

 

20 Ibid., p. 87. 

 

21 Ibid., p. 141. 

22
Ibid., p. 142. 

 

23
Peggy Sharp Valadares, p. 251.

 

24
Stephen Parkinson, Claudia Pazos Alonso and T.F.
Earle, A Companion to Portuguese
Literature (United Kingdom: Tamesis Books, 2013), p. 131.

25
Timothy Brown Jr. Pessimism in the Novels of Eça de Queiroz: All’s Well That Ends Well? (Kentucky
Romance Quarterly, Published online: 2010), p. 344.

https://doi.org/10.1080/03648664.1974.9928066