Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Dom Casmurro provides a wonderfully complex and profoundly human psychological portrait of a character presenting the tragic events of his domestic life and wrestling, albeit on a subtextual level, with his potential role in them. On the surface, Bento’s narrative seems designed to tell his side of his story in such a way that his reader will agree with his conclusion that he was indeed a victim of his wife and best friend. Bento puts his skills as a lawyer to extensive use, as he manipulates both language and fact to his side’s advantage so that he will convince the “jury” and thus acquit himself of any wrongdoing. The problem for Bento is that he frequently seems like a lawyer defending a client of whose innocence he is not completely convinced. This accounts for his frequent self-incriminating comments regarding his own character, his weak evidence regarding Capitú’s guilt, and his rather diluted emotions at the end of the novel. While he does indeed appear to defend himself, it often seems that his heart simply is not fully in it—and perhaps with good reason, for possibly he knows, or at least suspects, the truth.

Like so many truly memorable pieces of literature, Dom Casmurro, besides providing a telling interior portrait of a tortured soul, is also an open-ended, interpretation-rich collection of ambiguity. Unlike so much literature of the period, in which the conclusions the reader should reach are clearly spelled out, Machado’s novel deliberately leaves its greatest question—that concerning Capitú’s guilt—unanswered, and essentially unanswerable. Even the narrator/protagonist is confused as to whether he was right or wrong in his accusations, and his circumstantial evidence and his acutely jealous nature, as well as the fact that the reader has access to but one character’s perspective, leave the reader only to speculate on who the real victims are in this tragic and complex tale.

Machado’s novel is not a criticism of Brazilian culture of the period or a critique of male-female relations but is instead a story about one individual’s interpretation of events and his ability to believe that his interpretation coincides with truth, a belief that would free him of the guilt that comes from being wrong. He tries to win the sympathy of his reader, but he must first perhaps win his own.