By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Fifth Story’ is a 1964 short story by the Ukrainian-born Brazilian novelist and short-story writer Clarice Lispector (1920-77). In the story, a narrator describes how she prepared a recipe of sugar, flour, and plaster in order to get rid of a cockroach infestation. However, this simple event is described in five different ways, with the story gaining significance with each new telling of it.
You can read ‘The Fifth Story’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Lispector’s story. (The story is brief, and can be read in less than five minutes.)
‘The Fifth Story’: plot summary
The story begins with the narrator acknowledging that the story we are about to read could be given any number of different titles: ‘The Statues’, ‘The Killing’, or ‘How to Kill Cockroaches’. Because of this, the narrator announces that she will tell ‘at least’ three stories, which are all true and all part of the same bigger story.
The first version of the story, which the narrator titles ‘How to Kill Cockroaches’, is the most straightforward, being very focused on events or plot. The narrator was complaining about cockroaches, so another woman gave her a recipe for killing them, which involved mixing sugar, flour, and gypsum. The gypsum dries up the insides of the cockroaches when they eat it, killing them. Sure enough, when the narrator leaves this mixture out for the cockroaches to eat, they die.
The second version of the story, which the narrator dubs ‘The Killing’, recounts the same events as the first, but also tells us that the narrator’s problem with the cockroaches was more ‘abstract’ than anything, and represented dark ‘secrets’ to the narrator. They weren’t even in her apartment. In this version, the narrator’s reason for wanting to kill the cockroaches is her ‘evil secret’ and ‘angry fear’.
The third story could be called ‘The Statues’, the narrator tells us. In this version, after the plot of the story has played out as before in the first and second versions, the narrator walks across the floor to find the dead bodies of the cockroaches, looking like ‘statues’ across the tiles of the kitchen floor.
As dawn approaches, the narrator stands and studies the dead cockroaches, meditating on their crystallised forms and on their lives suddenly being arrested by the onset of the gypsum which, as it were, turned them to stone.
The fourth story proceeds as before, but this time, the narrator fears that every night, new cockroaches will turn up, and she will have to repeat the ritual indefinitely. This prospect divides the narrator: part of her likes the thought of becoming like a witch, turning these creatures to stone, while part of her fears that using the gypsum every night will harden her own nature.
She realises that she is, in a sense, damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t: either way, part of her soul will be diminished by whatever path she decides on. She makes her decision, announcing that the house has been disinfected, suggesting she has chosen to repeat the nightly ritual of killing the cockroaches.
The narrator concludes the story by telling us that the fifth story is called ‘Leibnitz and The Transcendence of Love in Polynesia’ and begins with her complaining about the cockroaches.
‘The Fifth Story’: analysis
Lispector’s ‘The Fifth Story’ might be regarded as an example of metafiction, with the narrator creating or suggesting five different stories out of a single event. That is, ‘The Fifth Story’ is a story about how we tell stories. The event itself is so ordinary as to be mundane: a woman is having a problem with a cockroach infestation, another woman tells her how to get rid of them, and the narrator does so.
The significance of Lispector’s story lies in how she encourages us to think about the weight we give to certain aspects of a story’s events, and how the same event can come to glimmer with new significance.
The first version of the story is all plot, without any deeper insight into what it might mean. The focus is firmly, and exclusively, on what happens. The second version, however, concentrates more on the narrator’s motivation: what is the real reason for her wanting to get rid of the cockroaches? Is there more to her motivation, psychologically speaking, than a simple desire to rid her apartment of some pest? The answer turns out to be ‘yes’.
The third version shines more light on the aftermath of the event: what are the consequences of the killing of the cockroaches? The narrator is forced to confront the results of her actions, and gaze upon the dead bodies of the insects, which have been rendered unfamiliar, even slightly uncanny, in the purple light of early dawn. Now, the simple act of killing the cockroaches feels to the narrator like ‘the destruction of the world’.
Are we reading an indirect allegory for the Holocaust here? The propaganda used by the Nazis to dehumanise Jewish people as ‘vermin’ or an ‘infestation’ could be relevant here, especially in light of Lispector’s own Jewishness. What seemed to be ‘just’ the killing of a few creatures now feels like the destruction of the whole world.
The narrator compares the killing of the cockroaches to the destruction of Pompeii, in AD 79, when the volcano Vesuvius erupted, showering the nearby cities in ash which, fittingly enough, killed many of the inhabitants and preserving them as plaster statues.
And then, in the fourth story, we find ourselves moving not ‘forwards’ (what happened after the event?) but inwards: how does the narrator feel, now she has killed once? Could she do so again?
The fifth story is at once crystal clear and curiously opaque: clear because we can see the narrator looping back to the beginning of the story and potentially finding yet another, and another, version of it, with the process continuing almost endlessly. (The reference to ‘Leibnitz’ (sic) and the transcendence of love in Polynesia is perhaps meant to be deliberately baffling, by yoking together philosophy and mathematics – Gottfried Leibniz – with love in an unexpected way, hinting at the various possible directions a simple story might branch off.)
‘The Fifth Story’ is, in the last analysis, a story about stories: it might be productively compared with other short examples of metafiction, such as the work of Italo Calvino or Margaret Atwood’s ‘Bread’.