Themes and Meanings
The arbitrary line that society draws to separate those mad from those sane is clearly the essence of this story, but the story is also an ironic study of credulity, vanity, and humankind’s chronic weakness for simple solutions. The general theme of madness versus sanity has a long literary history, and it is one that Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis explored in other short stories and at least two of his major novels. Because the theme is simply one of the declensions of the larger theme of appearance versus reality, it is probably fair to say, in fact, that it appears in some form in most of his fiction.
In the context of time and place, the irony is especially acute, because Brazil was a country in which faith in the ability of science to solve any problem had great currency in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, positivism became a sort of second national religion, and it contributed the national motto “Order and Progress,” which still appears on the Brazilian flag and which still seems to hold great appeal for Brazilians. Critics have noted the particular relevance of Machado de Assis’s treatment of the psychiatrist here because of Brazilians’ fondness for, and obeisance to, any high-sounding credential.
Bacamarte initially appears to be not much more than a charlatan, but because he is not even aware of the misery that results from his unremitting egotism, he is oddly naïve as a villain. What he turns out to be is a sort of embodiment of the eccentric but dedicated scientific spirit, ready to make any sacrifice in the name of the advancement of knowledge. Because, like all the other characters, his actions are at the same time guided by his colossal vanity, the story stands not only as an ironic inquiry into the mind of a megalomaniac but also as a commentary on the chronic human problem of self-delusion.