One morning, two foundlings appear at the door of the Abbess’s convent. The nuns take them in and name them Manuel and Esteban. Although their parents are never discovered, Limean gossips view their graceful bearing as evidence of wealthy fathers.
Esteban and Manuel’s lack of family or discernable origins will reinforce their remarkable closeness to each other.
Although she’s generally suspicious of men, the Abbess grows fond of Manuel and Esteban, treating them to cakes and telling them biblical stories. When they are too old to remain in the convent, they do errands and tasks for all the churches in the city. However, the boys don’t want to become priests; instead, they start working as scribes, transcribing plays for the theater, advertisements, and popular songs. When they grow tired of this, they work at the docks unloading vessels. They make few friends and only talk to each other.
Although Esteban and Manuel are active and known throughout the city, they remain aloof from its affairs. In a way, this demonstrates their good character: they don’t descend into drink and other behavior that makes the Abbess dislike men. However, it’s also clear that their close bond with each other establishes a barrier between them and the rest of the world.
Because they lack a family and were brought up exclusively by women, Manuel and Esteban are quite reserved. Although they are extremely close, they dislike the “continual comment and joking” about their resemblance, so they tacitly agree never to go about the city together. When alone, they speak to one another in a secret language that they made up as boys. Just as the word “resignation” understates what Doña María felt after her pilgrimage to the shrine, so “love” inadequately describes the brothers’ bond.
Doubting the ability of its own words to convey its characters’ emotions, the novel tacitly emphasizes its own limitations and the limitations of the artistry it describes. Moreover, by emphasizing the inability to truly convey genuine emotions through words, the novel elevates the brothers’ bond, which conspicuously eschews language and articulation.
One night, Manuel and Esteban see a play at the invitation of a theater manager they sometimes work for. The boys don’t like the theater, because for them “even speech was a debased form of silence,” false and tawdry in comparison to their unspoken bond. Esteban goes home early, but Manuel stays—seeing Camila Perichole acting the lead role, he instantly falls in love with her. Both brothers have seen her before during their work for the theater, and she always seemed like “an irritable girl in a soiled bodice,” but onstage she appears in a new light.
Even though Manuel claims to be immune to the kind of artistry Camila Perichole represents, he falls in love with the representation of herself created by her art – as he intuits now and the reader will see later, the Perichole is a very different woman offstage and onstage. This shows the ability of art to alter reality and to affect even those who are skeptical of it.
Now, Manuel lurks outside the theater on any possible pretext. This is the first time “his will and imagination had been thus overwhelmed” by a feeling he doesn’t share with Esteban. He is beginning to lose his sense of self in his passion for the Perichole.
Manuel’s loss of self coincides with his growing sense of distance from his brother. Their sibling bond is so close that it precludes any other relationships.
For Esteban, however, life with Manuel is enough to keep him content forever. He doesn’t have “room in his imagination” for any other relationships. Now, he feels hurt and betrayed to discover that even in those most ideal relationships, one person always loves more than the other. With Manuel so distant from him, Esteban feels like his life no longer has meaning.
Esteban and Manuel seem to have crafted an ideal family, in marked contrast to Doña María and Doña Clara. However, even here it’s clear that the same imbalances of love exist.
One night, a message boy tells Manuel that the Perichole wants to see him immediately. Manuel goes straight to the theater, where the actress asks him brusquely to write a secret letter for her. She makes him swear by the Virgin Mary that he is her friend and that he will never repeat the contents of the letter, not even to Esteban. The Perichole dictates one letter to the Viceroy, which is polite and earnest, asking why he believes the “calumnies” other people spread about her and stating her intention to return all the gifts he’s given her. Then she dictates a shorter, more intimate letter to her matador lover, telling him when and where to meet her for their next rendezvous. She dismisses Manuel.
Here, the Perichole assuages the doubts of her powerful primary lover, while also stoking the flames of her illicit affair. Her adroit and aloof behavior contrasts to Manuel’s earnest and unpremeditated passion. While the novel suggests that obsessive love isn’t healthy or virtuous, the Perichole’s unemotional approach to romance isn’t very appealing either. Moreover, by making him swear not to tell Esteban what he’s doing, the Perichole demands—and Manuel agrees—to prioritize this relationship over the sibling bond.
For the next two months, Manuel writes letters for the Perichole without ever telling Esteban what he’s doing. One night, to his astonishment, the Perichole arrives at their room in the middle of the night, wanting Manuel to write a letter at once: she dictates a furious message ending her affair with the matador for good. Since she’s whispering, Esteban merely sees her with her head next to Manuel’s and assumes that they are lovers. He feels “infinitely unwanted.”
Esteban’s feelings are founded on a misunderstanding. In essence, he’s watching a play whose script he invents, rather than understanding what’s really going on. However, the response this provokes in him is genuine and important. Art is both divergent from and inextricably linked to the events of real life.
After the Perichole leaves, Manuel sits with his head in his hands, whispering about how much he worships her. Esteban gets up from bed and tells his brother that he should go and follow the woman he loves. Manuel realizes that if he does so he will be irrevocably separated from Esteban; moreover, he realizes that his passion for the Perichole is only an “illusion” compared to his attachment to Esteban. Manuel finally understands that Esteban has been suffering, and he resolves never to think of the Perichole again.
The height of Manuel’s passion immediately precedes his disownment of that passion. This highlights the transitory nature of passionate love, especially compared to the deeper and self-abnegating loyalty that characterizes his relationship with his brother.
Blowing out the candle, Manuel feigns casual boredom and says that he’s tired of writing for the Perichole and doesn’t want to see her again. Esteban sees through the ruse and announces his intention to go for a walk; half angrily, he tells Manuel that he doesn’t need to change anything for him, and that he doesn’t want to be in his brother’s way. Manuel responds that Esteban shouldn’t be silly, and that he doesn’t love her at all. Finally, Esteban lies back down in bed. The next time a message boy summons Manuel to the Perichole, he says harshly that he wants nothing to do with her.
It’s fitting for two brothers whose relationship exists chiefly outside language that they resolve their one dispute without directly speaking about it. Relationships that have to be elaborately articulated (like Doña María’s love for her daughter) are generally less profound than those that don’t.
One night, Manuel cuts his knee on a piece of metal. Although neither of the brothers have ever been sick before, Manuel’s knee swells up and becomes infected. Esteban fetches a barber surgeon, who prescribes many ointments and instructs Esteban to lay cold cloths on the wound. However, as the hours pass the pain becomes more intense, until Manuel resists even the application of the towel.
Manuel’s infection is a coincidence that mirrors in miniature the larger calamity of the bridge collapse. In both cases, personal demise is attributable to an even that is specific but random and seems to lack evident meaning.
In the middle of the night, delirious with pain and anger, Manuel shouts curses at his brother, saying he hopes he goes to hell and saying that he came “between me and what was mine by right.” Esteban isn’t sure whether his brother means what he says, but he continues to care for Manuel devotedly.
In his delirium, Manuel refers to unresolved feelings for the Perichole, even though he moved away from her wholeheartedly and completely.
As dawn draws near, Manuel returns to his senses and is as kind to his brother as he normally is. Esteban even offers to send for the Perichole to visit him, but he says wholeheartedly that he doesn’t want to see her. When Esteban asks tentatively if he resents him for keeping him apart from the woman he loved, Manuel seems confused and tells Esteban that he’s “going crazy.”
Manuel’s feelings during his delirium are completely different from those he expresses when he is awake. Like representations of Doña María through real life and art, this shows how contradictory conceptions of a single character can coexist.
During the second night of Manuel’s illness, their neighbors begin to protest at his shouting and coarse language. Esteban tries to calm his brother, but not being able to scream makes Manuel even more agitated. On the third night, Manuel dies.
Manuel’s death is sudden, painful, and deeply traumatic for his brother. It’s hard to imagine that this tragedy was caused by the gentle and thoughtful God whom the narrator in part one suggests “smoothes” away bird feathers.
Esteban leaves the building and refuses to come back. He goes on long walks and stares vacantly at passersby. The landlord summons the Abbess, who tracks down Esteban and asks him to come view his brother’s body before the funeral. He stubbornly refuses, and even tells her that he is Manuel, and not Esteban. The Abbess remembers a moment during their childhood when she told them the story of the Crucifixion; Manuel had announced that if he and Esteban were there, they could have prevented it. Despite her pleas, Esteban walks down the street. When Manuel’s funeral procession passes through the city, he watches it from a distance, “like a savage.”
Esteban’s distress is one of the novel’s first portrayals of grief. It’s evident that this experience almost causes Esteban to lose his identity—he flirts with discarding his name by calling himself Manuel, and by stalking the funeral he acts more like an animal than a person. Although grief often becomes a transcendent experience, it’s a very destructive process at first.
From that point, Esteban wanders through and around the city. A shepherd finds him sleeping on a hilltop, and fishermen see him swimming in the ocean. Sometimes he does odd jobs, but he rarely keeps a job for long. Once he lingers outside the convent, but when the Abbess hurries out and tries to convince him to come inside, he runs away. The Abbess is so vexed that she rails to God that he has “not chosen to give me the least grace.”
The Abbess’s deep preoccupation with Esteban’s grief is evidence of her generous character. Although she doesn’t try to rationalize God’s will as Brother Juniper so frequently does, here she’s disillusioned (if only for a moment) with the divine plan she believes is governing her life.
After thinking long and hard, the Abbess summons Captain Alvarado. He is a seasoned traveler accustomed to making expeditions throughout the world. He’s famous throughout Lima, and Doña María has even introduced him by letter to her daughter. She intuits that his passion for traveling stems from the fact that he once lost a young daughter; she writes to Doña Clara “he goes about the hemispheres to pass the time between now and his old age.”
Like Esteban, Captain Alvarado is a man defined by personal loss. Moreover, like Doña María, he is a man whose accomplishments and career are inspired by his deep personal unhappiness. He shares the attributes of these two central characters without being marked by the obsessive love that governs their lives.
Esteban and Manuel have always respected Captain Alvarado and even done some work for him in the past, so the Abbess knows he is the one person who might be able to talk to Esteban. She sends him to Cuzco, where the boy is currently working, and Captain Alvarado finds the boy in a tavern. He pretends not to know that Manuel has died and offers them both jobs on his next expedition, to English and Russia. Reluctantly, Esteban admits that Manuel has died; however, he accepts a position on Captain Alvarado’s crew.
Captain Alvarado’s grief allows him to connect with Esteban and to approach him in this tactful manner. Although most characters seek to form relationships through passion and obsessive love, shared feelings of loss are more effective at forging interpersonal bonds.
That night, Captain Alvarado treats Esteban to dinner and gets him very drunk. Gently, the captain says that he’s heard Esteban recently ran into a burning house and saved someone. Esteban says that he did it because “you’re not allowed to kill yourself,” but that dying in an attempt to save someone else is acceptable to God.
With its deep pathos, this speech shows that, for Esteban right now, grief functions much as obsessive love does for other characters—it makes him blind to everything but his own suffering and drives him to self-destructive acts.
Esteban says that he wants to give the Abbess a present before he sets out. Once, she told him that she suffered a “serious loss” just as he did, and he tells Captain Alvarado that “women can’t bear that kind of a thing like we can.” Captain Alvarado agrees to help him find such a gift.
It’s notable that Esteban dwells not just on his own sadness but the Abbess’s. This remark shows that, after the first trauma of grief subsides, the experience inspires empathy and consideration for others.
When the drunken Esteban finally passes out, Captain Alvarado stands outside the bar and looks up at the sky, remembering the last time he saw his own beloved daughter. Then he returns inside and carries Esteban to bed.
Helping Esteban reminds Captain Alvarado of his own loss, but he can finally think of his daughter with fondness rather than despair.
In the morning, Esteban has a change of heart and says he doesn’t want to join the crew after all. When Captain Alvarado tries to coax him, Esteban goes upstairs. He doesn’t know what to do, since Manuel always made all the decisions. Captain Alvarado can hear noises from downstairs, and he thinks that Esteban is throwing a rope over the ceiling beam to make a noose. He runs upstairs and catches Esteban just as he tries to hang himself.
Esteban’s sudden change of heart shows his reluctance to make any decisions of which Manuel is not a part. His insular bond with his brother has again come to the fore, overriding the restorative process of grieving that Captain Alvarado has helped him begin.
Esteban falls to the floor, crying out in anguish that he is alone. Looking at him, Captain Alvarado re-lives the first hours of his own grief. Even though he knows that he’s speaking the obvious, he tells Esteban that he has to “push on,” and that “time keeps going by.”
Even though Captain Alvarado is saying unremarkable things, his actions show deep compassion. This is fitting, since Esteban and Manuel have always distrusted language in favor of action.
Esteban recovers his composure, and the two men set off for Lima. When they reach the bridge of San Luis Rey, the Captain stays behind to arrange the transportation of the luggage. Esteban heads directly onto the bridge and dies in the collapse.
Like Doña María, just as Esteban passes through a period of crisis and is about to transform his life, he dies suddenly.