Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis World Literature Analysis
Machado de Assis was a skilled and prolific writer in various genres: the novel, short story, poetry, the essay, and literary criticism. His productive career lasted for nearly half a century, in which he published not only numerous books but also voluminous material for newspapers and magazines. Due to his precarious health, he traveled little beyond his native city, Rio de Janeiro, the capital of the Empire of Brazil until 1889 and of the Brazilian republic after that date. The universe he so penetratingly and wryly perceived, therefore, was essentially that of a tropical, metropolitan port city during the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. His work reflected the emerging world of a Brazilian urban bourgeois. His perspective advanced from Romantic to realistic, yet it always held a measure of exceptional incisiveness through its ironic humor and penetrating assessment of human foibles.
His novels are divided into two phases, an earlier Romantic one and a later realistic one. His first novel, Resurreição (1872; resurrection), recounts the love affair of a wealthy, young man, fractured by jealousy, for a beautiful widow. For the rest of the decade, Machado produced works with a similar theme: the contradictions and dilemmas of love affairs among bourgeois youth. After a prolonged illness at the end of the decade, the Romantic writer elaborated his tendency to write in a more psychologically realistic style. Still writing of romance, he focused on the causes, character, and evolution of an individual’s emotions. The first novel in this new vein appeared in 1881, Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoris of Brás Cubas, 1951; better known as Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1952), in which a man of little distinction offers a benighted accounting of his life. The work demonstrates Machado’s growing skills in narrative dynamic and penetrating character analysis. There followed Quincas Borba in 1891(Philosopher or Dog?, 1954; also as The Heritage of Quincas Borba, 1954) and Dom Casmurro in 1899 (English translation, 1953). Returning to the theme of jealously, as in Resurreição of twenty years earlier, this time Machado analyzes the sentiment in terms of how validly a character assesses such a sentiment and how conclusively a reader can trust the evidence of such a character. All the works are replete with themes of irony, self-absorption, dissembling, and callousness. A repeated lesson is that self-love and shallow self-absorption defeat the needs for intimacy, accomplishment, self-knowledge, and even sanity.
Machado de Assis wrote numerous short stories, most of which have not been translated into English. Many of the best, however, have been. They are notable for their subdued insight and penetrating irony, usually revealed not so much by the action of the characters but by their dialogue and interior thoughts. One of the most famous is “Midnight Mass.” A provincial adolescent has arrived from the country, living in the family home ofan attractive older, married woman. He is waiting on Christmas eve in the parlor with her before going with a friend to midnight mass. The peaceful, settled domestic atmosphere contrasts with a tense, repressed sensuality the boy feels and which, enigmatically, may be reciprocated by the woman. Parlor gentility trembles on a chasm of frustrated intimacy. “O alienista” (“The Psychiatrist”) exposes a medical scientist’s confident perverseness in trying to determine who is or is not sane. “O enfermeiro” (“The Companion”) demonstrates how a supposedly conscientious care giver rids himself of an inconvenient elderly invalid. Machado disabuses readers of any benign illusions regarding human character.
Although devoted to the theater, Machado was productive but often not effective as a playwright. As a poet he also was not as distinguished. Among his most moving and sensitive poems is a sonnet, “A Carolina” (“To Carolina”), that he wrote to his wife after her death. A nonfiction genre in which he excelled was the crônica (chronicle), a Brazilian literary format that consisted of short essays appearing in newspapers or magazines. They reflected and commented on routine daily activities or the passing events of the time. It is through them that much of his sociopolitical views are known. The concise format ideally suited his incisive, subdued observation.
As an author and civil servant, Machado de Assis was a man of great probity and dedication. Although he admitted that he was a pessimist, nonetheless his work proved he was not a nihilist or negativist. Despite the gripping way in which he portrayed human selfishness and ignorance, he believed that people could save themselves from their failures through a literature imbued with penetrating and vivid insight. Indeed, his own definition of pessimism was that it was idealism, since pessimists expressed dismay at human actions and thereby expected more from human effort.
Writing in Portuguese, the obscure language of a distant underdeveloped country, and rising in life despite grave socioeconomic and personal disadvantages, Machado de Assis has come increasingly to be recognized for his singular role in the forefront of the literary craft. He has entered the pantheon of world-renowned authors. Like Gustave Flaubert, he possessed an acutely refined diction; like Guy de Maupassant, a commanding sense of setting and atmosphere; like Henry James, a nuanced, and possibly suppler, analysis of human character; and like James Joyce, an innovative prose technique and integrated composite of style and content that solidified thematic impact. Unlike Joyce, however, he was never obscure. Uniquely, he was a master of enigma, ambiguity, and irony.
Epitaph of a Small Winner
First published: Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, 1881 (English translation, 1952; also translated as The Posthumous Memoirs...
(The entire section is 2476 words.)