Abel starts the story of his travels and adventures when, at the age of twenty-three, he takes part in an unsuccessful plot against the corrupt Venezuelan government. Instead of going into exile abroad, Abel decides to satisfy a boyhood ambition by exploring the interior of his country, south of the Orinoco river. The young man, well prepared for the dangerous excursion because of his mastery of several Indian dialects, penetrates deep into the jungles and visits isolated communities. Don Panta, an old Venezuelan trader, befriends Abel and teaches him some valuable lessons about survival in the dense forests. Rumors about gold spur Abel to undertake further explorations, and he reaches the Parahuari mountains, where his search for gold proves futile.
Arriving at an Indian village, Abel is greeted sullenly by Runi, the chief, because he had suffered at the hands of the one white man whom he once met. After drinking casserie, an Indian "home brew," with his hosts, Abel makes a favorable impression on the Indians by his promise to help them defeat another tribe in battle. The Parahuari Indians, also under the influence of casserie, allow Abel to rest and to enjoy their hospitality for three weeks.
During that period of idle time, Abel tries to make the acquaintance of these Indians and to understand their psychology and way of life. Unable to sympathize generally with their savage natures, Abel nevertheless enjoys the story-telling of Cla-cla, Runi's mother, and the fencing lessons he starts with Kuakó, a young brave about nineteen or twenty years old. Restless and tired of the monotonous existence of the Parahuari village, Abel goes one day into the forest in order to get a better view of the solitary mountain of Ytaioa. When he returns, his host warns Abel not to visit the forest anymore because "something bad" will happen to the person who trespasses in the forest. Although Abel is impressed by the fact that these Indians never go near "this wild paradise," he is personally encouraged rather than disheartened by the challenge of the jungle mystery.
On the following day, Abel sets out for "the forest of evil report" because he is completely charmed by "the fascination of the unknown and the mysterious." Wandering through the "green mansions" of trees, Abel is entranced by the melodious strains of one particular bird because of its resemblance to the human voice. Abel, in fact, is almost convinced that a "being" is the source of the delightful song; he is determined to keep on returning to the woodland until he solves the mystery.
The main outlines of the plot and the important themes are introduced in these two chapters, and Hudson prepares the reader for Abel's encounter with Rima, the bird-girl. Nevertheless, the author very skillfully utilizes suspense and mystery in building up to the fateful meeting of the two main characters. Abel, almost sure that a human creature is the enchanting singer of the forbidden forest, is firmly committed to the quest of the ethereal voice.
After abandoning civilization, Abel realizes very soon that he is approaching a confrontation with two powerful forces: nature and destiny. He is a romantic in his love of the "green mansions" and other aspects of unspoiled natural surroundings; he senses intuitively that he is coming into intimate contact through the solitary and overwhelming scenes of nature with a great crisis in his life. There are many poetical passages, especially in the second chapter, as Abel enters the forest for the first time; the lengthy, detailed paragraph beginning with the words "I spent several hours in this wild paradise . . ." is an excellent example of Hudson's lyrical descriptions of humanity facing nature.
Abel, however, is very realistic about the savages who dwell in the jungles; he certainly does not accept Rousseau's theory that these inhabitants of an uncivilized environment are innocent and trusting people. In fact, Abel expresses an immediate and abiding lack of sympathy with the manners, psychology, and ethics of the Indians on the South American continent. He also takes a very dim view of any future improvement of the natives, and he places them on a level with "beasts of prey." Hudson, in short, seems to imply that these "savage inhabitants" represent a distasteful and unfortunate element of the awesomely beautiful South American landscape. But Hudson comprehends that the Indians are unfortunate because of the corrupting influence of the white man's ways and that the natives may therefore be "the last act in the great American tragedy."
Likewise, Hudson views the political and social background of South America realistically and honestly. His comments on the unstable governments and the constant reliance upon rebellion, revolution, and violence as a solution for needed reform provide cogent criticisms of contemporary problems. Abel is, as Hudson also indicates, an idealistic representative of the youth of these countries. Abel's failure in the conspiracy leads to flight from his native city because there is no room for opposition within the governmental system.
The air of the Parahuari village is oppressive, but Abel's reaction to Cla-cla's antics — the only Indian whom he finds amusing — provides another change in mood from the seriousness of his dealings with the other natives. His sympathetic attitude toward Runi's mother should be kept in mind to understand the tragic finale of Green Mansions. Abel's initial thoughts, when he first hears the strange song during his forest adventure, show a touching trait because the hero's reactions are almost those of a child — so simple, direct, and trusting in probing an unknown facet of life.