Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1180
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 several years traveling about Europe. Called back to Rio de Janeiro by news that his mother was dying of cancer, he arrived home in time to see her before she died. After her death, he went into retirement, remaining in seclusion until his father came to him with plans for a marriage and for a seat in the Brazilian legislative body. After some vacillation, Braz decided to obey his father’s wishes. The reason for his hesitation was a love affair with a rather beautiful girl. His discovery that she was lame, however, turned him away from her. On his return to social life, he learned that the young woman his father had picked out for him, a girl named Virgilia, had position, wealth, and beauty. It was through her father’s influence that the elder Cubas expected his son to get ahead politically. Unfortunately for the schemes of both father and son, Virgilia met Lobo Neves, a young man with more ambition and greater prospects. She decided to marry him, a decision that ended, at least temporarily, prospects of a political career for Braz.
Disappointed and disgruntled with life, he accidentally met Marcella, his former mistress. He found her greatly changed, for smallpox destroyed her beauty. After losing her looks, she left her earlier profession to become the keeper of a small jewelry shop.
Disappointment over his son’s failure to win Virgilia was too much for his father, who died shortly afterward. There was a great to-do after the father’s death, for Braz’s brother-in-law turned out to be an avaricious man who wanted his wife, Braz’s sister, to have as much of the estate as possible. Braz accepted calmly the selfish and unfortunate aspect of human nature thus revealed and agreed, for his sister’s sake, to be reconciled with his greedy brother-in-law.
Not very long after his father’s death, Braz learned from Virgilia’s brother that Virgilia and her husband were returning to Rio de Janeiro. Braz was pleased; he was still in love with her. A few days after the return of Virgilia and her husband, he met them at a ball. Virgilia and Braz danced several waltzes together and fell more deeply in love than they were while Braz was courting her. They continued to meet, and before long Virgilia became his mistress.
One day, Braz found a package in which were several bundles of banknotes. He kept the money and later used it to establish a trust fund for Dona Placida, a former servant of Virgilia’s family, who maintained the house in which Virgilia and Braz kept their assignations. They managed for several years to keep their affair a secret, so that Braz could be a guest in Virgilia’s home as well. In fact, he and Lobo Neves were good friends.
One day, Braz met Quincas Borba, an old schoolmate who was reduced to begging. The man took some money from Braz and, as he discovered later, also stole his watch. That night, Braz suggested to Virgilia that they run away. She refused to do so. They had a lovers’ quarrel, followed by a tender scene of repentance.
A short time later, Lobo Neves was offered the governorship of a province, and he suggested that Braz accompany him as his secretary. The situation was inviting to the two lovers, but they knew that in the smaller provincial capital their secret could not long be hidden. Their problems were unexpectedly solved when superstitious Neves refused the government post because the document appointing him was dated on the thirteenth of the month.
The love affair continued until Virgilia became pregnant. Neither of the lovers doubted that Braz was the father of the child, and he acted very much like a husband who expected to be presented with his firstborn. The child, not carried the full term, died at birth, much to the sorrow of Virgilia and Braz, and of the husband as well, who thought the child was his.
One day, Braz received a letter from Quincas Borba, the begging schoolmate who stole his watch. Improving his finances, the beggar became a philosopher, a self-styled humanist. Borba’s ideas fascinated Braz, who always fancied himself an intellectual and a literary man. He was also pleased when Borba sent him a watch as good as the one he stole. Braz spent a great deal of time with Borba, for Neves became suspicious of the relationship between his wife and her lover, and the two were discreet enough to stay away from each other for a time.
At last, Virgilia and her husband left Rio de Janeiro after Neves received another political appointment. For a time, Braz felt like a widower. Lonely, he turned to public life. Defeated for office, he then became the publisher of an opposition newspaper, but his venture was not successful. He also fell in love and finally decided to get married. Once more, he was disappointed, for his fiancé died during an epidemic.
The years passed rather uneventfully. Braz grew older and so did his friends. Not many weeks after the death of Quincas Borba, who became a close companion, Braz fell ill of pneumonia. One visitor during his last illness was Virgilia, whose husband died, but even her presence was not enough to keep Braz from slipping into delirium. In his dying moments, he cast up the accounts of his life and decided that in the game of life he was the winner by only a small margin, in that he brought no one else into the world to suffer the misery of life.
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