Critical Context

Machado de Assis is Brazil’s most famous writer. He was virtually unknown outside the Portuguese-speaking world, especially among speakers of English, until his novels gradually appeared in translation in the United States in the 1970’s. Although recognition has been slow, he is regarded as a major literary figure who has contributed significantly to writings on the human condition in Western literature.

Esau and Jacob, the eighth of his nine novels, has not enjoyed the popular reception of Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881; Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1952) and Dom Casmurro (1899; English translation, 1953). Scholars do, however, consider Esau and Jacob to be Machado de Assis’s most profound and elaborate novel. It demonstrates the author’s extraordinary application of native Brazilian myths and symbols to an exposition of his belief in the destiny of a better humanity.

The historical struggle of Brazil at the advent of modernity is posited by the political opposition of the twins. Pedro represents the conservative past of the empire, and Paulo represents a liberal future for the republic.

The characters of Natividade and Flora represent an even more important human aspect of that era of transition. Natividade returns to the Morro do Castello, the hill on which Father Manuel de Nóbrega founded the first Jesuit college in the early sixteenth century and the site of the...

(The entire section is 414 words.)