Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Machado de Assis is Brazil’s most revered novelist, and Dom Casmurro is considered by many to be his best novel. Following success as a writer of Romantic novels, for which he would still be remembered had he not continued to write, Machado’s view of human nature shifted dramatically from idealistic to cynical, and the novels he produced from this new perspective, such as Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881; Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1952), Quincas Borba (1891; Philosopher or Dog?, 1954), and Dom Casmurro, won for him his national-treasure status in Brazilian letters.

The post-Romantic Machado saw individual humans as profoundly imperfect and afflicted most notably with self-love, vanity, and an inflated self-esteem, any or all of which could lead to their downfall—though they might be, like Dom Casmurro, too self-consumed to recognize it, or at least to openly admit it. With such tragically flawed protagonists, numerous short chapters that resemble scene changes, and considerable use of dialogue, Machado’s novels of this period often resemble theater, and many have rightfully pointed out the numerous parallels between Dom Casmurro and Shakespeare’s Othello.

What sets Dom Casmurro, in particular, and Epitaph of a Small Winner apart from their time period, and what as well allows them to transcend national boundaries, is that Machado’s highly self-conscious narrator/protagonists are universal, flesh-and-blood characters who allow readers to see inside their imperfect souls. They make very personal contact with the reader; in fact, they spend much of their time directly addressing the reader, usually in an effort to win the reader’s approval of their behavior. Add in the ambiguity that muddies the waters between the version of reality that the narrators present and what may indeed be the truth, and one finds literary works that produce endless debate among readers and critics alike. It is for all of this that Dom Casmurro continues to entrance audiences of all nationalities and to inspire multiple interpretations.