Brazilian Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Brazilian Literature


Brazilian Literature

The following entry discusses Brazilian literature, both colonial and national, as it reflects the vast variety of ethnic backgrounds present in that nation, developing in tandem with other Latin-American literatures to produce a body of work that reflects the diversity of its origins.

Deeply concerned with the development of a Brazilian national identity and culture, Brazilian literature can be divided into two major periods: colonial and national. Comprised of native Indians, white European settlers, and a large black population, mostly brought to Brazil as slave labor, Brazil provides a varied cultural background for its indigenous literature, which often reflects the ethnic background of its writers. Colonized by Portugal in the mid-1500s, the country adopted Portuguese as the language of common discourse, and most colonial literature was composed in this language. Today, Brazilians continue to write in Portuguese, and their works reflect a concern with contemporary Brazilian society, as well as a deep sense of Brazilian history and culture.

Brazilian colonial literature largely focused on historical and geographical issues, often telling stories of the Portuguese conquest, the wars fought by various native peoples, and the explorations of the Brazilian interior in epic narratives. In addition to narratives of war and explorations, many Jesuit missionaries also contributed to the body of Brazilian writing. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the city of Bahia formed the epicenter of Brazilian culture and literature, followed by a shift to Minas Gerais, a mining town. Literary activities of the period continued to center around epic stories narrating events such as the war with Spain and other Portuguese conquests. Although colonial subjects continued to be a significant part of Brazilian literary activity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was simultaneous development of writing that was concerned with more nationalistic subjects. In the late-nineteenth century, with the advent of such authors as Jorge de Lima, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Brazilian literature shifted focus, becoming more concerned with local and nationalist themes. Other novelists and writers, such as José de Alencar, continued this trend, exploring native Indian themes in works such as O Guarani (1857; The Guarani Indian). With the works of novelist Mario de Andrade, Brazilian literature moved from the realm of Romanticism and Naturalism, with its focus on social and realistic themes, to experiments in language and folklore. Andrade's only novel, Macunaíma: o Herói sem nenhum caráter (1928) is often cited as a major example of linguistic experimental literature. In the twentieth century, authors such as Jorge Amado and Clarice Lispector, as well as a variety of others, continued the focus on Brazilian history and culture in their works.

One of the most enduring themes of Brazilian literature, and most other Latin American writing as well, has been the issue of national identity. Like many other South American nations, Brazil's colonization and resulting oppression and inequities have had a deep impact on Brazilian writing. After gaining independence from Portugal in the early 1820s, Brazil was governed by some form of monarchy until the 1930s, when a Brazilian republic was established under the leadership of Getulio Vargas. A military coup occurred in the 1960s, followed by almost two decades of an oppressive military regime. Finally, in 1990, Brazil held its first democratic elections. In his book Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture, Brazilian critic and scholar Roberto Schwarz traces in detail the impact of the political and social scene in Brazil on its writers and artists. In particular, Schwarz notes that while Brazilian writers were adept at emulating European styles of writing, especially the realist and naturalist novel forms, the conflict they faced in portraying the reality of Brazil in the genteel structure of a realistic novel was felt deeply by such authors as Alencar during the late 1800s.

The next major change in the Brazilian literary scene occurred in the 1930s, following the Brazilian Revolution of 1930. Once again, scholars have pointed out the close link between the literature of Brazil and the political climate of the nation. Conflict between the country's colonial and European past and the emerging sense of nationalism, the struggle between modernism and technology versus the traditionally powerful sectors of the country, and the imbalance of power between society and state, all affected the literature produced during this time. These years also marked the beginning of the modernist movement in Brazil. Modernist writing in Brazil is characterized by a break from traditional forms of writing, and is reflective of the struggle between the cosmopolitanism of pre-revolutionary Brazil and the culturally and nationally conscious Brazil following the revolution. This tension is reflected in the works of such authors as Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The modernist movement was given even further impetus by President Vargas's call to Brazilian intellectuals to integrate and address issues of everyday reality in their works and thus participate actively in the act of nation-building. However, by the mid-1940s, Brazilian modernism was being slowly replaced by a new generation of poets and writers.

Known for their innovative poetry and prose, writers such as Amado, Lispector, de Lima, and de Melo Neto have brought new perspectives to Brazilian literature. Influenced by experimental techniques in the works of many French and American novelists, Brazilian writers have continued to merge a distinctly Latin American point of view with issues that have universal appeal. The twentieth century also saw a surge in publishing activity by women and black authors in Brazil, many of whom had little opportunity to showcase their works before that time. The language in these works, notes critic Leda Maria Martins, is reflective of the self-recognition and apprehension many of these writers feel as they articulate a feminine perspective on life in Brazilian society. Similarly, old paradigms of slavery and oppression are being replaced with a new sense of multicultural identity in the writings of Afro-Brazilian authors. In her essay discussing the role of black authors in Brazilian literature, Cristina Sáenz de Tejada notes that the negative image surrounding blacks and women until very recently means that little information is available on the history of their writing in both anthologies and critical and scholarly studies. Even during the early twentieth century, when writers such as Amado began presenting positive images of blacks in their writing, black characters were highly stereotypical. Not until the 1980s, with the publication of the works of such authors as Sônia Coutinho and others, did Brazilian literature begin portraying blacks as an integral, vital, and positive part of society.

Representative Works

José de Alencar
O Guarani [The Guariani Indian] (novel) 1857
Diva (novel) 1864
Iracema (novel) 1865
A pata da gazela [The Gazelle's Foot] (novel) 1870
O tronco do ipê [The Ipê Trunk] (novel) 1871
Sonhos d'Ouro (novel) 1872
Til (novel) 1872
Senhora [A Lady] (novel) 1875

Miriam Alves
Momentos de Busca (poetry) 1983
Estrelas no dedo (poetry) 1985

Jorge Amado
Gabriela, crave a canela [Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon] (novel) 1958
A Morte e a Morte de Quincas Berro D'Agua [The Two Deaths of Qunicas Wateryell] (novella) 1959
Os pastores da noite [Shepherds of the Night] (novel) 1964
Dona Flor e seus dois maridos [Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands] (novel) 1966
O Gato Malhado e a Andorinha Sinhá [The Swallow and the Tom Cat: A Love Story] (fable) 1972
Tereza Batista cansada de guerra (novel) 1972

Mário de Andrade
A Escrava que nāo é Isaura (essay) 1925
Macunaíma: o Herói sem nenhum caráter (novel) 1928
Lira Paulistana (poetry) 1946

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Resurreicao (novel) 1872
Iaia Garcia (novel) 1878
Quincas Borba (novel) 1891

Sônia Coutinho
O Jogo de Ifá [Ifa's Game] (novel) 1980

Carolina de Jesus
Quarto de Despejo (diaries) 1960
Casa de Alvenaria (diaries) 1961

Jorge de Lima
Poemas Negros (poetry) 1947

Clarice Lispector
Family Ties [Laços de família] (short stories) 1960
The Apple in the Dark (novel) 1961

Joaquim Manuel de Macedo
A Moreninha (novel) 1844

Samuel Rawet
Diálogo (short stories) 1963
O terreno de uma polegada quadrada (short stories) 1969

Joāo Guimarāes Rosa
Grand sertāo: veredas [The Devil to Pay in the Backlands] (novel) 1956
Tutaméia (novel) 1967

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Roberto Schwarz (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Schwarz, Roberto. “The Importing of the Novel to Brazil and Its Contradictions in the Work of Alencar.” In Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture, edited by John Gledson, pp. 41-77. London: Verso, 1992.

[In the following essay, Schwarz discusses the rise of the novel in Brazil, focusing particularly on the works of José de Alencar.]

The novel had existed in Brazil before there were any Brazilian novelists.1 So when they appeared, it was natural that they should follow the European models, both good and bad, which had already become entrenched in our reading habits. An obvious statement, perhaps, but one which has many implications: our...

(The entire section is 18117 words.)

Randal Johnson (essay date winter 1994)

SOURCE: Johnson, Randal. “The Dynamics of the Brazilian Literary Field, 1930-1945.”1Luso-Brazilian Review 31, no. 2 (winter 1994): 5-22.

[In the following essay, Johnson draws parallels between the political conditions and the changing literary scene in Brazil during the 1930s and 1940s, noting that Brazilian writing of that period maps the relationships between control and influence in Brazilian society.]

Nos anos 1930 e 1940 o campo literário brasileiro passou por uma profunda reestruturação. Durante esse período, o modernismo canonizou-se e institucionalizou-se, novas gerações de escritores surgiram e a divisão do trabalho...

(The entire section is 9749 words.)

Criticism: Brazilian Poetry

Cassiano Nunes (essay date March 1968)

SOURCE: Nunes, Cassiano. “The Characteristics of Modern Poetry in Brazil.” Comparative Literature Studies 5, no. 1 (March 1968): 21-39.

[In the following essay, Nunes describes the growth of modern poetry in Brazil, focusing on the works of such authors as Murilo de Arajújo, Raul Bopp, Cassiano Ricardo, and Mário de Andrade.]

A complete understanding of the phenomenon of Brazilian Modernism is possible only by examining it on three planes; universal, continental, and national. Brazilian Modernism is, in this first plane of universality, a result of the circumstance of Time, even as it lives as a national artistic movement with repercussions in all facets of life....

(The entire section is 6603 words.)

Mark J. Curran (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Curran, Mark J. “Brazil's Literatura de Cordel: Its Distribution and Adaptation to the Brazilian Mass Market.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 1 (1982): 164-78.

[In the following essay, Curran expounds on the literature de cordel, a popular form of narrative poetry written by Brazilian poets of the Northeast, and the means by which it is marketed to the Brazilian public.]

The literatura de cordel [popular literature in verse] is that body of narrative poetry with folk-popular characteristics which is written by literate or semi-literate poets principally from Brazil's Northeast.1 Although popular poetry—that is, written...

(The entire section is 6171 words.)

Criticism: Contemporary Brazilian Writing

Nelson H. Vieira (essay date winter 1986)

SOURCE: Vieira, Nelson H. “Myth and Identity in Short Stories by Jorge Amado.” Studies in Short Fiction 23, no. 1 (winter 1986): 25-34.

[In the following essay, Vieira comments on the short narratives by Jorge Amado.]

Overshadowed by the success of such bawdy, sweeping, lyrical, and socially-minded novels as Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (1958), Shepherds of the Night (1964), Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966), and Tereza Batista Home from the Wars (1972), Jorge Amado's short fiction has understandably received little attention from readers and critics. Except for the highly acclaimed short story/novella, A Morte e a Morte de...

(The entire section is 4810 words.)

Kimberle S. López (essay date summer 1998)

SOURCE: López, Kimberle S. “Modernismo and the Ambivalence of the Postcolonial Experience: Cannibalism, Primitivism, and Exoticism in Mário de Andrade's Macunaíma.1Luso-Brazilian Review 35, no. 1 (summer 1998): 25-38.

[In the following essay, López analyses Andrade's text as an attempt to define an inherently Brazilian language and literature.]

Este artigo analisa o texto Macunaíma (1928) de Mário de Andrade partindo da perspectiva do Primitivismo literário. A questão da formação de uma identidade literária brasileira é problemática quando se trata da utilização de conceitos europeus como o...

(The entire section is 8041 words.)

Leda Maria Martins (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Martins, Leda Maria. “Voices of the Black Feminine Corpus in Contemporary Brazilian Literature.” In Winds of Change: The Transforming Voices of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars, edited by Adele S. Newson and Linda Strong-Leek, pp. 195-202. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.

[In the following essay, Martins chronicles attempts by black women writers in Brazil to create a language of self-definition and expression that reflects their condition, both as women and as black women.]

In the last decade the debate about women's role and figurations within the context of Brazilian literature and society has been very fruitful. A variety of essays not only give focus to...

(The entire section is 3200 words.)

Paul B. Dixon (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Dixon, Paul B. “Malandro Heaven: Amado's Utopian Vision.” In Jorge Amado: New Critical Essays, edited by Keith H. Brower, Earn E. Fitz, and Enrique Martínez-Vidal, pp. 57-74. New York: Routledge, 2001.

[In the following essay, Dixon analyzes the duality of Amado's utopian vision as presented in his novel Os pastores da noite.]

No discussion of Brazilian regionalism would be complete without including Jorge Amado. Few of the country's narrators, if any, have achieved a greater sense of place. Plentiful reference to the unique Afro-Brazilian realities of his native Bahia are, like dendê oil, coconut milk and malagueta pepper in a...

(The entire section is 8523 words.)

Criticism: Culture, Politics, And Race In Brazilian Writing

Regina Zilberman (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Zilberman, Regina. “Myth and Brazilian Literature.1” In Literary Anthropology: A New Interdisciplinary Approach to People, Signs and Literature, edited by Fernando Poyatos, pp. 141-59. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1988.

[In the following essay, Zilberman examines the use of myth in Brazilian literature, noting that many narratives employing this technique have as a main theme the justification of the way society is organized.]


Because myth is a mode of expression consolidated by verbal language, and because it is present in all human societies, it...

(The entire section is 7819 words.)

Nelson H. Vieira (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Vieira, Nelson H. “Outsiders and Insiders: Brazilian Jews and the Discourse of Alterity.” In The Jewish Diaspora in Latin America: New Studies on History and Literature, edited by David Sheinin and Lois Baer Barr, pp. 101-16. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1996.

[In the following essay, Vieira uses the works of Samel Rawet to demonstrate the commonality of the theme of alienation in many Brazilian-Jewish writings.]

“[T]hey were talking about Jews during that Christmas supper. … [T]here was the whole universe, the others and he, experiencing the same clichés, and the same insoluble contradiction.”


(The entire section is 6808 words.)

Cristina Sáenz de Tejada (essay date September 1997)

SOURCE: de Tejada, Cristina Sáenz. “Blacks in Brazilian Literature: A Long Journey from Concealment to Recognition.” Hispanofila 121 (September 1997): 61-74.

[In the following essay, de Tejada traces the changing images of blacks and black culture in contemporary novels by Brazilian and Afro-Brazilian writers.]

Over the past twenty years, Afro-Brazilians have been experiencing significant changes in their country parallel to the beginning of a democratic society, and a new vision of the world that is reevaluating historically and culturally what it means to be Black. This is manifested in several cultural movements, such as “Olodum” in the city of Salvador,...

(The entire section is 6371 words.)

Criticism: Modernism And Postmodernism In Brazil

Zilá Bernd (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Bernd, Zilá. “The Construction and Deconstruction of Identity in Brazilian Literature.” In Latin American Identity and Constructions of Difference, edited by Amaryll Chanady, translation by Chanady, pp. 86-103. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Bernd discusses two Brazilian epics, particularly their focus on the use of mythology and tradition in order to articulate a national literature and identity.]

Identity cannot have a different form from that of narrative, because to define oneself is, in the last analysis, to narrate.

—Paul Ricoeur, Temps et...

(The entire section is 5600 words.)

Zita Nunes (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Nunes, Zita. “Anthropology and Race in Brazilian Modernism.” In Colonial Discourse/Postcolonial Theory, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iversen, pp. 115-25. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Nunes contends that most Brazilian literature is deeply concerned with the definition of a national identity.]

                    Pouca saúde e muita saúva
                    Os males do Brasil sao.

With fewer ants and better health Brazil will lead the world in wealth.

(Mario de Andrade, Macunaíma)1


(The entire section is 5329 words.)

Randal Johnson (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Johnson, Randal. “Brazilian Modernism: An Idea Out of Place?” In Modernism and Its Margins: Reinscribing Cultural Modernity from Spain and Latin America, edited by Anthony L. Geist and José B. Monleón, pp. 186-214. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.

[In the following essay, Johnson reviews the Brazilian modernist movement of the 1920s and 1930s as a response to European modernist movements as well as a cultural expression of postcolonial Brazil.]

We are neither Europeans nor North Americans. Lacking an original culture, nothing is foreign to us because everything is. The painful construction of ourselves develops within the...

(The entire section is 10295 words.)

Further Reading


Bacarisse, Pamela. “Fernando Pessoa: Towards an Understanding of a Key Attitude.” Luso-Brazilian Review 17, no. 1 (1980): 51-61.

Discussion of the theme of contempt in Pessoa's writing and theory.

Fitz, Earl E. “Eroticizing the Sign: Sexuality and Being in the Narrative World of Clarice Lispector.” Romance Languages Annual 9 (1997): 478-85.

Analysis of the role of sexuality in Lispector's narratives, noting that it is reflective of the author's own psychological state.

Igel, Regina. “Brazilian Jewish Women Writers at the Crossroads.” In Passion Memory Identity,...

(The entire section is 371 words.)