Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1975

Article abstract: Because of his uniquely modern and boldly experimental contribution to narrative form and technique, as well as the universal appeal of his works, Machado is considered the greatest figure in nineteenth century Brazilian literature and a world master of the short story.

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Early Life

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’ father, Francisco José de Assis, was a native of Rio de Janeiro, the son of free mulattoes, and a housepainter by trade. His mother, Maria Leopoldina Machado da Câmara, was a Portuguese woman from the Island of São Miguel in the Azores. His mother could read and write, and similarities observed between her handwriting and that of her son indicate that she may have taught her son how to read and write as well.

Machado had a younger sister, Maria, who died of measles in 1845; his mother died of tuberculosis in 1849, when he was ten years of age. His father remarried Maria Ignez da Silva on June 18, 1854, but he died ten years later, on April 22, 1864. While the exact circumstances of the boy’s early life as well as his relationship with his stepmother are matters of speculation among his biographers, it is believed that Machado did not get along with his stepmother or her family. Although one of his early poems is dedicated to a cousin, Henrique José Moreira, nothing else is known about this or any other relative.

It is believed that when he was ten years of age, Machado went to live with a priest who provided the boy with a primary education; Machado never attended secondary school. Largely self-taught, the young man was an avid reader, who educated himself by spending his free time at the Library of the Portuguese Cabinet of Reading. Nothing further is known of Machado until his fifteenth year, when one of his poems was published in the magazine A Marmota. Henceforth, his professional activities, at least, are well known. At the age of seventeen, he was a typesetter; at the age of nineteen, he was a proofreader; and at the age of twenty-one, he was on the editorial staff of the republican newspaper Diário do Rio de Janeiro.

By 1860, Machado had begun to gain recognition with theater criticism, articles, poems, and stories. At the age of twenty-five, he published a first volume of verse, Chrisalides poesias (1864). The young man continued writing poems, more or less successfully—columns of clever and insightful commentary on current events, translations from French and English, and drama—but soon realized that fiction was the genre in which he was most proficient.

Machado was short and slight; his facial features were strong, although he was not considered handsome, and he was pronouncedly nearsighted. He was extremely conscious of his appearance and suffered from a lifelong inferiority complex because of his racial heritage. He was a victim of epilepsy; the illness was particularly pronounced during his early years and the last four years of his life—after the death of his wife.

Machado married Carolina Augusta Novaes (sister of the Portuguese poet Faustino Xavier de Novaes) on November 12, 1869, and in the same year became the assistant director of Diário do Rio de Janeiro, a post which he held until 1874. Machado and his wife remained devoted to each other throughout their marriage. During his lifetime, Machado never even ventured more than a few miles beyond the city limits of his native Rio. From 1873, his meager income as a writer was augmented by a position at the Ministry of Agriculture, where he served until his death in 1908. An exemplary civil servant, Machado never missed a day at the office.

During the period of Machado’s novelistic production—his career as a novelist began in 1872 with the publication of Resurreicão (resurrection)—romanticism was still flourishing, but the incursions of naturalism were soon apparent. In general, Brazilian Romanticism is characterized by lyric poetry, Indianism, poetry of the mal du siècle, and sociopolitical literature concerned with events such as abolition. The movement included the expansion of literary genres and was based on a veneration of nature and the observation and analysis of customs and characteristic types.

From the beginning of his novelistic career, Machado outlined an experimental literary form which contained some Romantic elements but was not strictly representative of the movement. While his earlier novels utilize some Romantic devices, they also demonstrate many of the features to be found in his later works. In breaking with the movement, Machado freed himself not only from the school of Sir Walter Scott but also from all literary schools. With the publication of the novel Yayá Garcia (1878; Iaia Garcia, 1977), Machado ended the first phase of his literary career.

Life’s Work

When he was already forty-two, Machado published his first great novel Memórias póstumas de Bráz Cubas (1881; The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, 1951; better known as Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1952). The appearance of this work marks the beginning of the second, more powerful phase of the author’s career. In this period Machado violently attacked the naturalist movement, which he referred to as realismo (naturalism applied a scientific objectivity to the representation of reality). His advice to young writers in Portugal and Brazil was not to be lured into a movement which, despite its novelty, was already obsolete.

Machado took from the reigning schools, Romanticism and naturalism, only those elements which he chose to incorporate into his own aesthetic. In Epitaph of a Small Winner, he announced that he would make no concessions to popular literary fashion, despite the limited number of readers that the book would probably have. In that novel, Machado first introduced in his work archaic literary techniques of the eighteenth century. Yet his archaism is surprisingly modern in, among other things, its formal fragmentation, use of ellipsis, and irony.

In one sense, Machado’s fiction can be seen as a continuation of the work of the Brazilian writer José de Alencar. Yet at a time when Alencar was still struggling to rid himself of Romantic attitudes and methods, Machado, quickly and with apparent ease, abandoned Romanticism, and Alencar, in the incredible maturity of Epitaph of a Small Winner. Whereas Alencar represented the clash and conflict of sharply delineated characters in concrete settings and in a series of well-staged confrontations, Machado developed the art of ambiguity and understatement. Instead of the social criticism that in Alencar bordered on satire, he chose irony. Machado’s characters are always plagued by their own demons: They are caught in a web of their own fears and dreams, and their vision of reality is entirely subjective.

Machado was deeply indebted to such British writers as Laurence Sterne. In the major works of both writers, the story is never presented directly to the reader but always through a first-person narration by the protagonist. The narrator, who is usually the main actor as well as the storyteller, becomes an unreliable witness. He is also so often compelled to discuss his own version of the facts that the novels become exercises in a new type of self-reflexive fiction. The text itself ultimately emerges as the protagonist.

In this second phase of Machado’s writing, in addition to the short stories collected in Histórias sem data (1884; timeless stories) and Várias histórias (1896; stories), he wrote other novels. In the next twenty years he would complete a kind of trilogy with Epitaph of a Small Winner, Quincas Borba (1891; Philosopher or Dog?, 1954), and Dom Casmurro (1899; English translation, 1953). Before his death, he completed two extremely subtle novels, Esaú e Jacob (1904; Esau and Jacob, 1965) and Memorial de Ayres (1908; Counselor Ayres’ Memorial, 1973).

Machado died in his native city of Rio in 1908. The Chamber of Deputies, in a special session, voted to hold a state funeral with civil and military honors. This was the first time in the history of Brazil that a literary man of humble origins was buried like a hero. The author was eulogized throughout Brazil, and in France a memorial service was held in his honor at the Sorbonne, with Anatole France presiding.

Summary

A master of realistic and accurately detailed portrayal, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis so subtly distorted the proud self-image of his generation that the brilliance of his critical eye was almost a century in being appreciated. In presenting the follies and foibles of his contemporaries, he was not only a faithful portraitist but also a judge. Yet, while Machado’s writing reveals a bitter disillusionment with mankind, it exhibits the serenity of one who has learned to laugh at his own lost illusions and broken dreams.

Machado has achieved a unique place in Brazilian literature, above and beyond all artistic schools and cultural movements. Besides demonstrating insight, simplicity, and subtlety, his work reveals a spirit that animated the new generation of modernism. Yet his novels about life in Rio are realistic psychological studies set in a middle-class milieu. No writer in Latin America has embraced as much and as varied a terrain as has this Brazilian author.

Many honors in recognition of his writing were bestowed on him, the first by the emperor in 1867. Finally, when the Brazilian Academy of Letters was founded in 1897, he was elected its first president and perpetually was reelected. Thus, although he was not widely known outside Brazil, his talents were appreciated and acknowledged during his lifetime. This acknowledgment has continued through the years.

Bibliography

Bettencourt Machado, José. Machado of Brazil: The Life and Times of Machado de Assis, Brazil’s Greatest Novelist. New York: C. Frank, 1962. This rather sentimental study focuses primarily on the life of Machado and secondarily on his work. Since little factual information exists on Machado’s early life, and since Bettencourt does not reveal the sources of his information, his interpretation is interesting, although largely a matter of speculation. Includes a bibliography of primary and secondary works.

Caldwell, Helen. Machado de Assis: The Brazilian Master and His Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970. In this well-written and informative work of literary analysis, Caldwell discusses, after an introductory chapter, Machado’s first four novels. Then follows a chapter on Epitaph of a Small Winner, one on Philosopher or Dog? and Dom Casmurro, and a concluding chapter on the writer’s last two novels. Contains extensive footnotes and a brief biographical epilogue.

Nist, John. The Modernist Movement in Brazil. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966. In this work, Nist attempts to describe and illustrate the modern spirit in Brazilian poetry and fiction. In the section devoted to Machado, Nist discusses the author’s antiromantic temperament and aesthetics in the context of the new social and political order in Brazil, assesses the writer’s contribution to modernism, and praises the universality of his works. Nist’s book contains a bibliography of general works on the Brazilian modernist movement.

Nunes, Maria Luisa. The Craft of an Absolute Winner: Characterization and Narratology in the Novels of Machado de Assis. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. This brief but insightful work maintains that the most important element of Machado’s art was his exploration of character. It is also the first study in English to apply systematically a philosophical and aesthetic critical apparatus to the texts of Machado, specifically that of narratology. Includes a bibliography of primary and secondary works.

Putnam, Samuel. Marvelous Journey: A Survey of Four Centuries of Brazilian Writing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948. In this survey, Putnam’s purpose is to acquaint English-speaking readers with the main figures and currents in Brazilian literature of the past four centuries. In a rather lengthy chapter devoted to a discussion of Machado’s work, “Machado de Assis and the End-of-the-Century Realists,” Putnam places Machado’s writing in the literary and social context of nineteenth century Brazil, and highlights the rebelliousness, originality, and universality of the author’s work. Contains extensive footnotes, a bibliography, chronological tables, and reading lists.

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