Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 734
Braz Cubas (“Bras” in the original), the somewhat spoiled son of a typical upper-class Brazilian family. A cynical egoist afflicted by the countercurrents of sentimentalism and melancholy, Braz describes his own death at the beginning of the first-person narration and then relates the rest of his life as flashbacks. In each of his major social or intellectual enterprises, Braz aspires to external fame and internal satisfaction, but his accomplishments are only mediocre and superficial. A classicist in a romantic environment, he seeks sex, philosophical wisdom, and humanitarianism in personal conduct but succeeds only partly in each of these quests. In tune with his sentimentalism, he affirms “the voluptuousness of misery.” His philosophy and humanitarianism soon decline into cynicism, iconoclasm, and pessimism. His first liaison is with Marcella, a licentious Spanish woman of the world who becomes his mistress but makes him pay dearly for every privilege. He becomes engaged to a girl from his own class, Virgilia, in a match contracted with solid political prospects in view. He is almost immediately supplanted by another young man in both the marital and the political arenas. Within a short time, however, he and Virgilia become lovers, but she refuses to abandon her marriage, upon which her social position depends. He arranges for them to meet clandestinely in an outwardly respectable love nest, the permanent residence of an elderly female acquaintance. Braz’s conscience temporarily attacks him over the use of this older woman to gratify his illicit desires, but his cynicism almost immediately leads him to conclude that “vice is the fertilizing flower of virtue.” When Virgilia’s husband eventually receives a letter informing him of his wife’s infidelity, he visits the love nest to confirm the accusation. Braz conceals himself in the bedroom rather than admit his guilt. He reasons that the husband no longer cares about Virgilia but remains married merely because of public opinion. When the husband accepts a post as governor, taking Virgilia with him, Braz in a brief instant of regret reflects on the nature of romantic melancholy. He almost immediately orders an expensive meal at a gourmet restaurant as a way of keeping Virgilia out of his mind. When he reaches middle age, Braz becomes engaged to a girl half his own age, but is not greatly disturbed when she dies of yellow fever. When he learns that the girl’s father is disappointed because only a handful of those invited came to her funeral, Braz remarks that formality, or superficial attention to social routines, is the basis of most displays of grief and feelings. He becomes a member of the Chamber of Deputies and recognizes that vanity has been an essential ingredient in all of his expressions of the sentiment of love. He accepts the theory of Helvetius that self-interest is the mainspring of all human action, but he adds vanity as another element. On his deathbed, Braz muses that his life has been filled with negatives. One major negative however, had a contrary positive element concealed: His lack of progeny denied the instruments of transmitting the universal legacy of misery. Because of this childlessness, he regards himself as a small winner in the lottery of life.
Virgilia, who seems to be an exact match for Braz in social class, breeding, and character, perhaps explaining why she becomes his mistress rather than his wife. She becomes pregnant and allows Braz to believe he is responsible, but a miscarriage removes the problem. Shortly after her husband’s death, she visits Braz on his deathbed. She is still beautiful but is unable to revive his sentimental attachment.
Lobo Neves, Virgilia’s husband.
Marcella, Braz’s avaricious mistress, who shares her favors with another man until Braz outdoes him in expensive gifts. She then rejects him in turn. Years later, she encounters Braz after an attack of yellow fever has left her pock-marked. She pretends to be poor but engages in business as a goldsmith to gratify her greatest vice, greed.
Quincas Borba, a boyhood friend of Braz, equally spoiled and even more handsome. In middle age, he is transformed into a penniless beggar and offers to teach Braz his philosophy of misery. After inheriting a large fortune, he expounds another system, humanitism, a variation of the doctrine of the best of all possible worlds in which vanity and self-love are ruling principles.