Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is one of the most remarkable figures of Brazilian literature. He is often regarded as its central figure and has been compared with such giants of world literature as Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, and Jorge Luis Borges. Machado was a mestizo (a person of mixed racial descent) and was reared in poor circumstances. Nevertheless, he taught himself English, German, and French and read widely in American and European literature. He lived almost his entire life in his home city of Rio de Janeiro, where he worked as a journalist, dramatist, translator, government official, and theater critic. A sociable man, Machado de Assis moved easily among the intellectual circles of Brazilian society. An epileptic, he was often sick as a child, and his ill health continued into his adulthood. He began Epitaph of a Small Winner, which was a sharp departure from his earlier, more conventionally Romantic works, while taking a rest cure in Tijuca, outside Rio de Janeiro. Several chapters of this novel were dictated to his wife Carolina, as Machado de Assis’s eyesight was too poor for him to be able to write them out himself.
Epitaph of a Small Winner is the first of what are sometimes called Machado de Assis’s carioca novels, which refers to their focus on the society of Rio de Janeiro. These novels, including Machado de Assis’s acknowledged masterpiece Dom Casmurro (1899; English translation, 1953), share many stylistic and thematic concerns. Some general themes include: problems of good and evil, the destructive nature of time, the dangers of the human ego, the unreliable nature of human judgment, the contrast between human longing for perfection and the frailty of human nature, the danger of totalizing scientific and philosophical systems, and the correlation between pleasure and disillusionment.
Many of these themes are readily apparent in Epitaph of a Small Winner. The humanism of Quincas Borba is the sort of explain-everything philosophy that Machado de Assis considers dangerous. Braz Cubas demonstrates the natural laziness of human nature; he is often all too willing to accept the easy answer. Braz accepts things as they happen to him; he reacts rather than acts. He yearns for great things, yet accepts his mundane life.
One of the most obvious features of Epitaph of a Small Winner is the remarkable narrator. The novel is told in the first person by a narrator who is already dead. The narrator’s memories of past events are highly subjective, and Braz demonstrates himself to be egotistical, self-interested, and not particularly bright; in short, the reader is presented with an untrustworthy narrator. This narrator often pauses to address the reader, even going so far as to say that, if there is a flaw in the book, the reader is that flaw. The narrator is not only untrustworthy but also arrogant.
This feature affects the reader’s response to the novel. The reader’s role in the storytelling process is emphasized, for the reader cannot relax and let the story happen, since veracity of Braz’s entire narrative is called into question. There are times when Braz seems to be trying to justify himself; he may be telling his story in such a way as to make himself look good. If a reader cannot trust the narrator of a novel, who can be trusted? The novel thus...
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