Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 849
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 proposes questions regarding the reliability of language and, with that, a doubting of the nature of reality itself, as reality seems to change according to the words used to describe it. If Braz describes his life in a particular way, then that is what that life becomes, regardless of what actually happened, or how another character might tell the story.
Thus, the stylistic innovations of the story emphasize some of the thematic concerns, as the reader is called on to interact directly with a flawed human being in the form of the narrator. The reader must question not only Braz’s judgment but also the reader’s own. This demonstrates Machado de Assis’s primary concern in his novels—the inner life of his characters. He attempts to examine problems of good and evil, not merely by describing human cruelty, violence, or injustice, but by demonstrating how easy it is for one individual to accept evil, not necessarily because evil is attractive but because it is easy to accept.
Despite the novel’s somewhat pessimistic view of life, it is often admired for its satirical and ironic humor. Braz’s pessimism is often mistakenly applied to Machado de Assis. It is true that Braz draws pessimistic conclusions about life, but attributing them to Machado de Assis may not be entirely appropriate, and not only because the author warned against biographical readings of his works. Braz’s pessimism is not presented as an admirable thing; rather, it makes him appear ridiculous. It is clear that Machado de Assis was certainly aware of humanity’s shortcomings; however, there would be no point in illustrating them so well if he did not at least hope, as every good satirist does, that they could be amended.