Study Guide

Epitaph of a Small Winner

by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

Epitaph of a Small Winner Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Epitaph of a Small Winner was the first novel in the later, more mature phase of the work of Machado de Assis. A bleak irony envelops the work. Characteristic of this sentiment, Brás Cubas dedicates these posthumous memoirs to the first worm that has gnawed into his casket. Through first-person narrative, Brás attempts to evaluate his life. Initially he recalls a money-making scheme in which he was absorbed toward the end of his life, inventing a device to protect against depression. He then recalls his final illness and visits from a woman, Virgília, with whom he had a shallow, self-absorbed, adulterous affair.

The narrator proceeds to recall the most significant events of his life from his birth in 1805 to his death in 1869. He reveals a selfish, shallow, hypocritical person. Able to expose his defects, he ignores analyzing how his character was formed. The reader acquires an increasingly interactive role with Brás Cubas, both as a witness to the candid boldness of his testimony and as a judge or evaluator of his ultimately naive and self-serving assessment. Although he speaks candidly, such frankness does not mean he has done so critically; he may know his character, but what insight of it does he have?

Spoiled by his father, Brás Cubas develops as a mean and mischievous child. One of his self-satisfied uncles introduces him to his first lover, Marcela. Though he is in love with her, she is interested only in the financial...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Epitaph of a Small Winner Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Braz Cubas, a wealthy Brazilian, dies of pneumonia in his sixty-fifth year. After his death, he decides to write his autobiography, to while away a part of eternity and to give humanity some record of his life. Braz was born in 1805. His childhood was an easy one, for his father was extremely wealthy and indulgent, only pretending to be severe with his child for the sake of appearances. One of the earliest experiences the boy remembered was the elation of the Brazilians over the defeat of Napoleon, an occasion marked in his memory by the gift of a small sword. The sword was the most important aspect of the occasion, and Braz remarked that each person has his own “sword” that makes occasions important.

As a child, Braz did not like school. In his seventeenth year, he had his first love affair with a courtesan named Marcella. Trying to please his mistress, Braz spent all the money he could borrow from his mother and then gave promissory notes to fall due on the day he inherited his father’s estate. His father, learning of the affair, paid off his son’s debts and shipped him off to a university in Spain. At first, Braz hoped to take Marcella with him. She refused to go.

Graduated from the university and awarded a degree, Braz admitted that he knew very little. He then took advantage of his father’s liberality and wealth and spent several years traveling about Europe. Called back to Rio de Janeiro by news that his mother was dying of cancer, he arrived home in time to see her before she died. After her death, he went into retirement, remaining in seclusion until his father came to him with plans for a marriage and for a seat in the Brazilian legislative body. After some vacillation, Braz decided to obey his father’s wishes. The reason for his hesitation was a love affair with a rather beautiful girl. His discovery that she was lame, however, turned him away from her. On his return to social life, he learned that the young woman his father had picked out for him, a girl named Virgilia, had position, wealth, and beauty. It was through her father’s influence that the elder Cubas expected his son to get ahead politically. Unfortunately for the schemes of both father and son, Virgilia met Lobo Neves, a young man with more ambition and greater prospects. She decided to marry him, a decision that ended, at least temporarily, prospects of a political career for Braz.

Disappointed and disgruntled with life, he accidentally met Marcella, his former mistress. He found her greatly changed, for smallpox destroyed her beauty. After losing her looks, she left her earlier profession to become the keeper of a small jewelry shop.

Disappointment over his son’s failure to win Virgilia was too much for his father, who died shortly afterward. There was a great to-do after the father’s death, for Braz’s brother-in-law turned out to be an avaricious...

(The entire section is 1180 words.)