Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis Critical Essays

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

To some modern readers it may appear lamentable that Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’ works bear neither overt references to his racial heritage nor arguably even oblique ones. In this regard the Brazilian mulatto will be seen to be fully integrated with the concerns and priorities of the European-leaning dominant bourgeois society in late nineteenth century Brazil. Nevertheless, Machado de Assis wrote on the fringes of “polite” society in a way that did not specifically derive from race, although a sense of social inferiority may well have contributed to his development of a cynical and biting stance toward the higher spiritual aspirations of the socially dominant Brazilian of his day. Specifically, this stance can be seen in his critical analyses of the ambiguities of the human soul (his “Jamesian” quality) and in his dissection of the pious self-sufficiency of the ignorant bourgeoisie (his “Flaubertian” and “Tolstoian” qualities). Like many of the great realists, Machado de Assis lends himself to a Lukacsian or Marxist analysis. His works bespeak, beneath the surface of the comings and goings of polite, ordered society, the tremendous conflicts, passions, and irreconcilable tensions of a society that fragments human experience and strives to metaphorize, in terms of a myth of spiritual transcendence, humans’ carnal and materialistic nature. The patterned texture of an ordered society remains permanently at odds with fundamental aspects of the human soul which it chooses to ignore or metaphorize.

“A Singular Event”

In this regard, Machado de Assis’ story “Singular occurrência” (“A Singular Event”) may be considered a metatext not only of the Brazilian’s concern with ambiguities of the human experience that polite society cannot account for in terms of its own ideological construction of the world but also of his typically nineteenth century rhetorical strategies for the framing of ambiguous narrative. The story concerns the “singular event” in the amorous relations between a young married lawyer and a woman of unspecified occupation (“she was not a dressmaker, nor a landlady, nor a governess; eliminate the professions and you will get the idea”) who becomes not only his devoted lover but also his “pupil” as well. The relationship described between the two goes beyond simply the sexual bond between a gentleman and his extramarital companion (a Latin American sociocultural cliché). The lawyer undertakes to form the woman, teaching her to read and to appreciate the “finer” things in life in the form of the high cultural artifacts of the period. Then one night the woman undertakes a sordid adventure with another man in such a way that it appears she is flaunting her perfidy. The idolizing lawyer is possessed with despair; yet she remains silent as to the reasons for her infidelity or at least for the “dramatization” of an apparent flagrant infidelity. The lovers are reconciled, she bears him a child who soon dies, he subsequently dies while out of town, and she spends the rest of her days conducting herself as a proper widow: When the story opens she is seen going to church clad in somber black.

The semantic contrasts put forth by the narrator’s story of the beautiful “widow” and the singular event that colors it are the overt markers of the ambiguities of human...

(The entire section is 1374 words.)