Student Response V

Rosa’s “Paradoxical Temptation”

In Joao Guimaraes Rosa’s The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, Rosa demonstrates temptation through an unsure footing of what is right and what is wrong through the subtle manipulation of language. He does this through the main character, Riobaldo, who takes on the appearance of the Devil throughout the novel. Rosa’s and Riobaldo’s idea of temptation differs from the conventional idea of temptation, because it takes on the form of paradoxes. The reader is convinced to trust Riobaldo who blatantly displays this temptation, which leads to the unsure footing of right and wrong.

Riobaldo takes on the appearance of the Devil when talking to the hidden listener. “I speak in twisted words. I narrate my life, which I did not understand. You are a very clever man of learning and good sense… Did the Evil One exist?”[1] Riobaldo’s repeated compliments to the listener seem to lull both the listener and the reader into a state of trust. However Riobaldo is just as clever and learned as the listener, and uses this to hide his intentions. He says that he speaks in twisted words himself, showing that he tempts by paradox. Directly after this he questions the existence of the Devil, which he does on numerous occasions. Riobaldo is trying to hide the presence of the Devil and the presence of temptation to sin, that follows the story. His temptation lies within his cryptic words, and through them he also shows glimmers of the Devil. Riobaldo’s paradoxical version of temptation can be seen multiple times through his hubris and ego. He says many times that he does not want to become chief. He strips his past feelings of their validity by saying “Now I was free, relieved of my past unhappiness.”[2] Riobaldo first speaks through words of humility to hide his hubris momentarily until the moment he becomes chief. He initially comes across as being humble to put the reader into a hypnotic state of trust. This demonstrates Riobaldo’s ultimate temptation of the reader. Had Riobaldo shown his hubris immediately, the trust the reader has in Riobaldo would not have existed, which in turn would not allow the reader to fall for his temptations. Riobaldo further creates this sense of trust in the reader by complimenting the listener, playing upon the listener’s, and the reader’s, own hubris. He not only tempts the reader to trust him, but also to fall prey to their own hubris.

Another good example of Riobaldo’s paradoxical temptation is when Riobaldo declares he will kill the next man he sees, but when he does actually see him, he decides he no longer has the urge to kill. He then takes the horse and dog in turn, saying he will kill them, and then twisting a way not to, until finally he decides to kill nothing. Through this long decision making process, he vividly describes what he would do to each thing, and then chooses not to. He hides his temptation through this mechanism, showing us what he truly desires and then refuting it immediately afterwards, in a very concise manner. The length at which he goes to describe his true impulse and temptation, shows how much he is trying to tempt us to do the opposite of him.

Riobaldo disguises the temptation to kill the leper by displaying it as an act of kindness. Riobaldo spots the leper and immediately he assumes that “the man had gone there to lick ripe guavas on the tree, one by one, in order to pass his disease on to the persons who would later eat the fruit,”[3] based off of a story once told by Mediero Vaz. The leper is never clearly stated to have licked the guava, but through Riobaldo’s words, the reader is once again lulled into trusting him. Temptation to kill can be seen as Riobaldo then begins to describe how the leper “filled [him] with revulsion and loathing.”[4] Portraying him as a snail further engrosses the reader into feeling the same hatred and loathing for the leper as Riobaldo has. Riobaldo invigorates and excites the reader with his words, much in the same way he does the men under his command, personifying the passion that the Devil excites in others.

Riobaldo then leaves the reader lusting for violence as he hesitates to kill the leper. The reader is frozen in a state of bloodlust as Riobaldo first insults the leper, and then waits to shoot him, so his men would not say that he “shot the leper stealthily.”[5] Not only does he create further invigorates the feeling of bloodlust by hesitating, but he also shows another figure of temptation through hubris. Riobaldo does not hide his sinful temptations from the reader, and instead implies that he is the Devil once more. He does this through the hallucinatory appearance of Diadorim, who warns him to “take heed.”[6] Riobaldo states that it is an “imaginary conversation”[7], yet he talks as though there is more to it. He says “’You have the Renegade with you,’”[8] and he implies by use of the word Renegade that his hallucination carries the Devil and could possibly be the Devil itself. But Riobaldo “speak[s] in twisted words,”[9] and he lulls the reader once again into a state of trust. But the “Renegade” can also be interpreted as a renegade to the Devil himself, because the hallucination warns him to “take heed.” Diadorim can be seen as Riobaldo’s conscience, and as opposition of the temptation to sin. Riobaldo then goes further into this subtle, hidden, meaning by saying “I and he – the devil? Then it struck me: could it be that he was really trying to take charge of me?”[10] He recognizes the Devil in him and notices that the Devil takes control. Riobaldo hides the truth of the Devil in him from the reader, through his hubris as “[he] growls… ‘Ah that, never, never,’”[11] hiding that the Devil is in him, by saying he is in control. Riobaldo is characterized as temptation and the Devil itself, and in essence, he is in control, but he hides his true identity, making the reader believe that Riobaldo is a separate, opposite, entity from the Devil. The lasting impression of Riobaldo and the Devil as being one is felt heavily when he says “I and he –the devil?” His manipulation of language is demonstrated by showing that he and the Devil are the same, yet implying the opposite. Riobaldo directly states and shows the reader that he is the Devil, and then through the same medium he does this, he also implies the opposite through the subtlety of a question mark.

Bloodlust was first awakened in the reader at the first sighting of the leper, but was then silently hushed as Riobaldo lost himself in his contemplation of the Devil. This pause in bloodlust shows a duality between the two, as glimpses of Riobaldo as the Devil intermingle with Riobaldo’s graphic imagery of bloodlust. After showing the reader the Devil inside him, he solidifies this through another graphic portrayal of bloodlust. Diadorim reluctantly gives Riobaldo permission to kill the leper, but Riobaldo must “kill him with [his] own hand plunging in the knife.”[12] Diadorim once more takes on the appearance of Riobaldo’s opposite, his conscience. Yet even Diadorim can be seen to subtly fall for Riobaldo’s bloodlust as Diadorim says “You will see that under the rotten flesh, the blood that spurts from his heart is healthy and warm.”[13] At first glance, this passage is in opposition to the previously felt bloodlust brought on by Riobaldo. However, under further examination, Diadorim has fallen prey to bloodlust and temptation, by using graphic and vivid imagery. It can also be interpreted through Diadorim’s words that he condones the killing, by saying that the spilled blood of the leper is healthy and warm. Diadorim’s pause to Riobaldo’s move to kill the leper, allows the leper to escape. The leper’s egress leaves Riobaldo to question “whether [he] would have killed him or not.”[14] Riobaldo tries to hide his true nature through this. He once again build up temptation, tension, and bloodlust, as he then vagrantly describes himself as the Devil, only to leave the reader amidst the previously felt passions, that Riobaldo now questions. He questions his temptation as a way to further cement temptation in the reader, to finish what he started. He leaves the reader, confused and vulnerable to the cemented temptation that he feels himself.

Riobaldo portrays Diadorim as the only force that opposes temptation. The reader believes Riobaldo once more and Riobaldo is successful once again in tempting the reader. Diadorim falls prey to temptation, and to Riobaldo, just the same as the reader. The relationship between Riobaldo and Diadorim is heavily dominated with homoerotic imagery, which invalidates the assumption of Diadorim as an opposing force to temptation. Riobaldo explicitly states on several occasions that he is in love with Diadorim, and that Diadorim is in love with him too, but Riobaldo goes on to say that it is not a homoerotic love. This matches the pattern of paradoxical temptation that Riobaldo uses throughout the novel. He vividly describes it as love that transcends friendship, and then devalues this description. Riobaldo directly shows his temptation when he has a “sudden impulse… to kiss the fragrance of [Diadorim’s] neck.”[15] After he says this, he goes on to say he must repress his feelings. He invalidates his temptations for Diadorim, while wholly describing them, which allows Riobaldo to succumb to temptation, without directly doing so. He then tries to correct his temptation and hide his devilish nature, by saying “were he a woman… I would be emboldened to passionate word and deed.”[16] Riobaldo’s paradoxical temptation is evident in this sole passage. Riobaldo’s love for Diadorim is repressed because Riobaldo believes that Diadorim is a man. But here Riobaldo succumbs to his temptation through words and imagery, leaving the reader with the lingering temptation. This is similar to how Riobaldo vividly describes how he will kill the leper, and then does not.

Riobaldo depicts Diadorim as his conscience throughout the novel. The reader falls to Riobaldo’s depiction of Diadorim, and believes that Diadorim does not succumb to temptation. Riobaldo subtly hides Diadorim’s fall to temptation by portraying Diadorim as his conscience. Riobaldo’s paradoxical temptation is ever present in this, and Riobaldo holds his temptation in plain sight, but under false pretenses. When Diadorim succumbs to his lust for revenge, he is falling prey to Riobaldo’s temptation of bloodlust that follows through the novel. In the heat and passion of battle, Diadorim has a final showdown with Hermogenes in a knife fight. Diadorim finally succumbs to the bloodlust felt earlier on, in the scene with the leper. Here, Hermogenes is the leper, and Diadorim is in the place of Riobaldo. Diadorim takes his own previous advise, and goes to kill Hermogenes as he told Riobaldo to kill the leper. This correlation is seen through Riobaldo’s manipulation in language as he describes the battle. Riobaldo “saw Diadorim stab and bleed Hermogenes.”[17] Riobaldo describes Diadorim’s blow, much in the same way Diadorim described how to kill the leper. Riobaldo says that the “knife went in deep where neck and shoulder meet –the blood spurted in a high arc –he insisted on doing a good job of killing!”[18] By use of the word spurted, Riobaldo references the scene with the leper, and furthers this by saying Diadorim “insisted on doing a good job of killing.” Diadorim insisted this for both Hermogenes and the Leper, which shows that Diadorim completely fell victim to temptation and bloodlust. Riobaldo then repeats throughout this final battle, “The devil in the street, in the middle of the whirlwind.”[19] . As Diadorim falls to temptation, he dies. The fall of Diadorim to temptation, is the rise of the Devil in the street. Since Riobaldo was the one who originally tempted Diadorim into bloodlust, Riobaldo is the Devil in the street. Riobaldo shows that he was the one in the whirlwind, the devil in the streets, by saying “I have outlasted the storms. You, sir, knew nothing about me.”[20] Riobaldo’s conscience dies, he fully becomes the Devil.

Riobaldo takes on the form of the Devil, hiding in plain sight. He lulls the reader into a false state of trust, and then leads the reader onward through temptation. Riobaldo is able to blatantly state temptation, and show himself as the Devil, yet able to hide his identity as the Devil, through his subtle and intricate manipulation of language, and his paradoxical approach towards temptation. Riobaldo says his temptation, and describes it, which creates rises in passion that the reader falls victim to, but then he typically rebukes the temptation itself hiding his true nature in plain sight. This gives rise temptation through paradox.

Sam Eggleton

[1] Rosa, João Guimarães.  The Devil to Pay in the Backlands New York: Knopf, 1963. Print. 398

[2] Rosa, 357

[3] Rosa, 400

[4] Rosa, 400

[5] Rosa, 400

[6] Rosa, 400

[7] Rosa, 401

[8] Rosa, 401

[9] Rosa, 398

[10] Rosa, 401

[11] Rosa, 401

[12] Rosa, 402

[13] Rosa, 402

[14] Rosa, 402

[15] Rosa, 467

[16] Rosa, 468

[17] Rosa, 482

[18] Rosa, 482

[19] Rosa, 481

[20] Rosa, 482


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