Epitaph of a Small Winner Summary
by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

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Epitaph of a Small Winner Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Epitaph of a Small Winner was the first novel in the later, more mature phase of the work of Machado de Assis. A bleak irony envelops the work. Characteristic of this sentiment, Brás Cubas dedicates these posthumous memoirs to the first worm that has gnawed into his casket. Through first-person narrative, Brás attempts to evaluate his life. Initially he recalls a money-making scheme in which he was absorbed toward the end of his life, inventing a device to protect against depression. He then recalls his final illness and visits from a woman, Virgília, with whom he had a shallow, self-absorbed, adulterous affair.

The narrator proceeds to recall the most significant events of his life from his birth in 1805 to his death in 1869. He reveals a selfish, shallow, hypocritical person. Able to expose his defects, he ignores analyzing how his character was formed. The reader acquires an increasingly interactive role with Brás Cubas, both as a witness to the candid boldness of his testimony and as a judge or evaluator of his ultimately naive and self-serving assessment. Although he speaks candidly, such frankness does not mean he has done so critically; he may know his character, but what insight of it does he have?

Spoiled by his father, Brás Cubas develops as a mean and mischievous child. One of his self-satisfied uncles introduces him to his first lover, Marcela. Though he is in love with her, she is interested only in the financial advantages of their relationship. To end the affair, his father sends him to study in Portugal. Wasting his years there, Brás returns to Brazil on the death of his mother, an event he recounts with no emotion. For reasons of political advantage and family distinction, his father wants him now to marry Virgília. Brás is attracted, however, to another woman and rejects the match. Virgília thereafter marries another but then has an affair with Brás, reflecting the corrosive self-love that absorbs everyone’s action. His father dies, an event that once again the son relates with no emotion.

A woman with whom Brás wants to marry and raise a family dies. He establishes an ineffectual political career but never reaches his goal of becoming a cabinet minister. He never completes his antidepression invention. Nevertheless, he concludes that his life has been that of a “small winner”: He has not passed on the problems of human life to any offspring. The reader, as involved now in the work as the narrator and author, concludes quite the opposite: What Brás Cubas considers the insight and small victory of his life, neither loving nor having offspring, is actually its defeat.

Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Braz Cubas, a wealthy Brazilian, dies of pneumonia in his sixty-fifth year. After his death, he decides to write his autobiography, to while away a part of eternity and to give humanity some record of his life. Braz was born in 1805. His childhood was an easy one, for his father was extremely wealthy and indulgent, only pretending to be severe with his child for the sake of appearances. One of the earliest experiences the boy remembered was the elation of the Brazilians over the defeat of Napoleon, an occasion marked in his memory by the gift of a small sword. The sword was the most important aspect of the occasion, and Braz remarked that each person has his own “sword” that makes occasions important.

As a child, Braz did not like school. In his seventeenth year, he had his first love affair with a courtesan named Marcella. Trying to please his mistress, Braz spent all the money he could borrow from his mother and then gave promissory notes to fall due on the day he inherited his father’s estate. His father, learning of the affair, paid off his son’s debts and shipped him off to a university in Spain. At first, Braz hoped to take Marcella with him. She refused to go.

Graduated from the university and awarded a degree, Braz admitted that he knew very little. He then took advantage of his father’s liberality and wealth and spent...

(The entire section is 1,631 words.)