Critical Evaluation

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, one of Brazil’s greatest writers, was born in Rio de Janeiro on June 21, 1839, and raised in straightened circumstances. The biracial Machado de Assis was of small stature and sickly physique. Nonetheless, he was ambitious and persistent, and he possessed an insightful, articulate intelligence and displayed singular qualities of discipline and character. A noted novelist of the time recognized the young Machado de Assis’s precocious literary and personal talents and befriended him. Machado de Assis thus entered a literary circle of prominent writers that met at a bookstore, which served also as a publishing house. Employed in government service and rising in the bureaucracy, he married a white Portuguese woman in 1869, the most satisfying relationship of his life. In 1897, he was one of the principal founders of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, elected for life as its first president. Widowed in 1904, he died four years later, on September 29, from complications of chronic intestinal problems.

In numerous genres but especially novels and short stories, Machado de Assis developed an exceptional style and technique that offered precise, penetrating psychological analysis of the ambiguous motives and ironic consequences of human pursuits of love, desire, and material satisfaction. His work may be divided into two phases, an earlier romantic one and a later realist one. His first novel, Resurreicão (1872; resurrection) recounts a wealthy young man’s love affair, fractured by jealousy, with a beautiful widow. For the rest of the decade, Machado de Assis produced in fiction and for the stage similar works that similarly explored the contradictions and dilemmas of love affairs among bourgeois youth.

After a prolonged illness at the end of the decade, the romantic writer evolved into a psychological realist. Still writing of romance, he focused on the causes, character, and evolution of an individual’s emotions. The first novel in this new vein was Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881; The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, 1951; better known as Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1952), in which a man of little distinction offers a delusional account of the achievements of his life. The work demonstrated Machado de Assis’s growing skills in refined character analysis and a narrative dynamic that engaged readers in evaluative involvement. In the 1890’s,...

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