(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Esau and Jacob has 121 chapters and a brief preface. Some chapters are less than half a page in length, and none is more than six pages long. The novel is set primarily in the more fashionable neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro during the twenty-five-year era corresponding to the waning years of the Brazilian Empire and the beginning of the republic (1869-1894).

The preface states that the novel is the last of a seven-part manuscript written by the retired diplomat, Counselor Ayres, who thus serves as the author of the story. He is, however, also one of the principal characters. Ayres also plays yet another role: He is the narrator. In this role, he frequently addresses and questions the reader directly.

The epigraph from Dante Alighieri’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy) at the head of the first chapter sets the tone for the entire novel. “Dico, che quando l’anima mal nata . . .” (“I mean, when the spirit born to evil . . .”) suggests that all characters have a flaw in their spirits or souls that will lead them as humans to do evil. As in the medieval literary epic, the reader of Esau and Jacob is led on a journey through hell in order to be instructed and purified.

The outer frame of the novel is concerned with an elaboration of the Santos family. The father is a highly successful businessman and director of his own bank who has acquired his great wealth through ruthless and questionable dealings. Natividade, his wife, consults the cabocla, a native fortuneteller, to learn what the future will be for her sons, the twins Pedro and Paulo. She is told: “Things fated to be!” “They will be great!” “They will fight!” Natividade’s life is consumed by the fate of her sons. She takes intense satisfaction in seeing Pedro and Paulo eventually becoming distinguished members of the Chamber of Deputies in the new republic. At the same time,...

(The entire section is 797 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Bettencourt Machado, José. Machado of Brazil: The Life and Times of Machado de Assis. New York: Bramerica, 1953. An interesting-but not always reliable-older biography that includes extensive background information on Brazil.

Caldwell, Helen. Machado de Assis: The Brazilian Master and His Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. The most important study of Machado de Assis’ life and novels, written by the translator of Esau and Jacob.

Fitz, Earl. Machado de Assis. Boston: Twayne, 1989. An excellent general introduction to all aspects of Machado de Assis’ life and work; includes chronology and bibliography.

Nunes, Maria Luisa. The Craft of an Absolute Winner: Characterization and Narratology in the Novels of Machado de Assis. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. A major examination of Machado de Assis’ use of various narrative techniques and his theory of characterization.