José Maria de Eça de Queiróz Essay - Critical Essays

José Maria de Eçade Queiróz


In the course of his novels, José Maria de Eça de Queirós vividly dissected a society lost in past centuries, oblivious to any contemporary political, social, or cultural ideology. Initially, he censured Portugal’s backwardness in romans à thèse that presented a rather confused, even naïve, comprehension and literary application of the social theories of Proudhon, the religious doctrines of Renan, and the literary aims of Gustave Flaubert. As he discovered his own literary persona, these influences gradually became secondary.

Several thematic and technical interests are recurrent in Eça de Queirós’s literary voyage from naturalism and realism to his unique personal style, independent of any literary school. His own parentless childhood is often invoked through numerous characters in odd family situations—orphans, wards, widowers, loners without family—and through the theme of incest. Further, Eça de Queirós’s “presence” in the attributes of his novels’ characters appears to be an attempt to examine and resolve the extremes of his own personality: the spirit of a romantic dandy with the mind of a practical realist. Finally, his concern with the Portuguese identity led him to examine repeatedly its traditional components: rural existence, the Roman Catholic tradition, and the national preoccupation with and glorification of past centuries’ achievements.

The Sin of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio

The Sin of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio are closely related in Eça de Queirós’s early development. Both have a basis in actual events that occurred prior to his arrival as administrator of the city of Leiria. The publication history of The Sin of Father Amaro is indicative of the almost maniacal search for an appropriate, personalized style, which Eça de Queirós pursued and which limited his publications. The original version was serialized in the Lisbon Revista ocidental in 1875, when the author was in England, and he entrusted the editing to his friends Ramalho Ortigão and Antero de Quental, but he was rather dissatisfied with their efforts. After the serialization, Eça de Queirós wrote a “definitive” version with substantially developed characters and preponderant social themes.

Father Amaro is an orphan who, through the graces of “benefactors,” is ordained and obtains a desirable parish in Leiria. He becomes enamored of his landlady’s daughter, the innocent Amélia, who gives herself to Amaro in a spiritual trance of religious possession. Her pregnancy results in guilt, the murder of the child, and her own death. Unrepentant, Amaro travels on to another parish. The rural existence in general and the role of the corrupt priests of the Church in particular are the targets of Eça de Queirós’s censure. Graphic scenes of sexual encounters and blasphemous presentations of religious activities led to hostile commentaries that branded the novel anticlerical and pornographic. A “completely new, revised, and rewritten edition” appeared in 1880, owing to the influence of Machado de Assis, who wrote a sharp criticism of the “definitive” edition and Eça de Queirós’s second novel, Cousin Bazilio.

Set in upper-middle-class Lisbon society, Cousin Bazilio was written within a few short months of 1877 and reveals the impact of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886) on Eça de Queirós. Luiza is a slightly educated woman living in a world of romantic fantasy. When her husband, Jorge, goes off on business, she becomes involved in an affair with her Cousin Bazilio, who is on a visit from Paris. Luiza’s maid, Juliana (one of Eça de Queirós’s finest creations), discovers several discarded love letters from Luiza to Bazilio and decides to blackmail her mistress and thus avenge her unfortunate proletarian life. Juliana dies of a fear-provoked stroke, and Luiza succumbs to “brain fever.” As in Eça de Queirós’s first novel, there are lurid sexual encounters and a general attack on the aimless existence of Portuguese women.

The essential criticism of both of these novels was provided in a review by Machado de Assis, which appeared in 1878 in a Rio de Janeiro newspaper. Although Machado de Assis found merits in Eça de Queirós’s writings, he rejected Eça de Queirós’s...

(The entire section is 1792 words.)