Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

de Assis, Joaquim Maria Machado 1839-1908

Brazilian novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, playwright, essayist, and journalist.

Machado de Assis is thought by many to be Brazil's greatest writer. Although he wrote in many genres, he achieved his greatest literary successes in both the novel and short-story forms. A complex blend of psychological realism and symbolism, Machado's fiction is marked by pessimism, sardonic wit, an innovative use of irony, and an ambiguous narrative technique. His best known novel, Memorias postumas de Brás Cubas (Epitaph of a Small Winner), is often cited as the first modern novel of the western hemisphere. Another, Dom Casmurro is thought by many to be the finest novel ever written in both Americas. But Machado is also acknowledged as the father of the modern Brazilian short story, producing more than 200 works that use a wide range of styles and forms. Earl E. Fitz has remarked that "whether we consider him primarily as a short story writer of as a novelist, Machado de Assis deserves—and is beginning to receive—recognition as one of the true modern masters of Western narrative."

Biographical Information

Machado was born in Rio de Janeiro on June 21, 1839, to a Portuguese mother, who died when he was ten, and a mulatto father. Machado had epilepsy and a speech impediment, which are thought to have made him very self-conscious. During his teens he met many prominent literary figures while working as a printer's apprentice. These acquaintances helped Machado get his first works published. He was an early success, and his work was widely acclaimed by the time he was twenty-five. In 1860 he entered the civil service, to which he dedicated himself, and he eventually attained the directorship of the Ministry of Agriculture. Over the next decade, while working for the Ministry, Machado wrote mostly poetry and several comedies—drama being his first literary passion—before he gave more serious attention to narrative fiction. During the 1880s and 1890s Machado wrote what many critics consider his greatest fiction: the novels Epitaph of a Small Winner, Quincas Borba (Philosopher or Dog?), and Dom Casmurro; and the stories in Papeis avulsos, Historias sem data, Varias historias, and Paginas recolhidas. In 1897 Machado was named the first president in perpetuity of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, of which he was a founding member. He held this title until his death on September 29, 1908, of arteriosclerosis.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Having a much broader range than his novels, Machado's short fiction is concerned with the destructiveness of time, the nature of madness, the isolation of the individual, conflicts between self-love and love for others, and human inadequacy. Often humorous, Machado's stories portray the thoughts and feelings, rather than the actions, of characters who often exemplify Brazilian social types. Machado's stories deal satirically with cultural institutions and contemporary social conditions. His short fiction eschews description or narration in favor of selfrevealing dialogue and monologue. Unlike his novels, very few of Machado's more than two hundred short stories have been translated into English, but those that have represent his most accomplished works in the genre. These include "The Psychiatrist," which struggles with the twin questions of who is insane and how one can tell; "Alexandrian Tale," a satirical attack on the tendency to use science to cure human problems; "The Companion," one of Machado's most anthologized tales, in which a man hired to care for a cantankerous old invalid is driven to murder him instead; and "Midnight Mass," regarded by most as his best single story, which relates the events surrounding an ambiguous love affair between the young narrator and a married woman.

Critical Reception

Outside his native Brazil, Machado's short stories are relatively unknown, and consequently they have received little international critical attention. This is due to the fact that Portuguese is not widely accepted as a literary language, and Brazilian literature, in particular, comprises a small part of the traditional Western canon. According to Fitz, "had [Machado] written in French, German, or English, for example, [he] would be as well-known today as Flaubert, Goethe, or Shakespeare." Recent comparative studies have linked his short stories with those of such masters as Henry James, Anton Chekhov, and Guy de Maupassant. Some critics have interpreted Machado's narrative art as being part of the realistic trend in literature, but most have identified his work with the modern movement, linking the style and technique of his fiction to writers such as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann. Other scholars have examined Machado's works as an influence in the construction of a postcolonial Brazilian national identity and for indications of the author's stand on racism and civil rights. As international readers have slowly discovered his fiction through translation, most agree that Machado's narrative art is the work of an unrecognized genius.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Major Works of Short Fiction

Contos fluminenses 1869

Histórias da meia-noite 1873

Papéis avulsos 1882

Histórias sent data 1884

Várias Histórias 1896

Páginas recolhidas 1899

Reliquias de casa velha 1906

Brazilian Tales 1921

The Psychiatrist, and Other Stories 1963

The Devil's Church, and Other Stories 1977

Other Major Works

"Ela" (poetry) 1855; published in journal Marmota Fluminense

Hoje avental, amanha luva (drama) 1860; published in journal A Marmota

Desencantos (drama) 1861

Quase ministro (drama) 1863

Crisalidas [Chrysalises] (poetry) 1864

Os deuses de casaca (verse drama) 1865

*Falenas (poetry and drama) 1870

Ressurreiçao (novel) 1872

A mao e a luva [The Hand and the Glove] (novel) 1874

Americanas (poetry) 1875

Helena [Helena] (novel) 1876

Antes da missa (drama) 1878; published in journal O Cruzeiro

O bote de rape (drama) 1878; published in journal O Cruzeiro

Yaya García [Yaya Garcia; also published as Iaia Garcia] (novel) 1878

†Tu, so tu, puro amor (drama) 1880; published in journal Revista Brasileira

Memorias póstumas de Bras Cubas [Epitaph of a Small Winner; also published as Posthumous Reminiscences of Braz Cubas] (novel) 1881

Quincas Borba [Philospher or Dog?; also published as The Heritage of Quincas Borba] (novel) 1891

Nao consultes medico (drama) 1896

Dom Casmurro [Dom Casmurro] (novel) 1900

‡Poesias completas (poetry) 1901

Esau e Jaco [Esau and Jacob] (novel) 1904

Licao de botanica (drama) 1906

Memorial de Ayres [Counselor Ayres ' Memorial] (novel) 1908

Obra completa. 31 vols, (novels, short stories, drama, poetry, and essays) 1955

*This collection contains the drama Uma ode de Anacreonte.

† This play was originally titled Tu só, tu, puro amor.

‡Includes a section of new poems written for this volume and widely known as Ocidentais.

Donald M. Decker (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Machado de Assis: Short Story Craftsman," in Hispania, Vol. XLVIII, No. 1, March, 1965, pp. 76-81.

[In the following essay, Decker discusses the themes, style, and technique in Machado's later stories from Histórias sem data to Várias Histórias.]

The themes of Machado's short stories are subtopics of one broad basic concept of human life and the world in which men live. If there is a purpose in Machado's writing, other than simply to entertain his readers, it is to reveal to them this concept by combining fantasy, irony, and reality, blended in innumerable and original juxtapositions.

In "Adão e Eva" a judge explains that the earth was really created by the Devil, not by God. In "Viver!" the last man on earth, being weary of the world's ills, is happy to have reached the end of his existence. Although Machado appears to view the world as the Devil's creation, he does not find it perfect in its evil. In the story "A igreja do Diabo" the Devil establishes his own Church on earth, but its success is tempered by followers who "practice virtues on the side." The enraged Devil approaches God, who calmly replies: "—Que queres tu, meu pobre Diabo? . . . é a eterna contradicção humana." William L. Grossman, in translating some of Machado's stories into English, has noted the writer's "curiosity about the relationship between good and evil—and always his critique, now biting, now compassionate, of human inadequacy."

In the story "Um apólogo" the needle works hard while the thread receives all the benefit. In "Trio em lá menor" the writer refers to the "technique of destiny," which proves in this case, as usual throughout his stories, to be utterly absurd. In "Viver!" man's vigorous hope for a better life proves to be but a foolish fancy. Thus, Machado does not envision a completely evil world, but rather one which is basically incongruous.

In her article "Machado de Assis, Encomiast of Lunacy," Clotilde Wilson refers to the writer's "deeply pessimistic philosophy" which sees "humanity struggling in vain against a relentless fate and seeking with frantic eagerness a chimerical happiness, which may fall within his grasp for one brief moment only to vanish the next with mocking laughter." Machado's characters frequently have specific yearnings for happiness both in material forms—such as, a uniform ("O espelho"), a pair of shoes ("Ultimo capítulo"), or coins ("Anedota pecuniaria")—and in longings for fame ("Fulano") or social success ("Teoria do medalhão"). Whether or not these are achieved, however, is purely a matter of incongruous fate. In any case, disease or death soon dissolves all human yearnings.

With unremitting frequency Machado's characters suddenly fall ill and die. It is evident that he had a broad knowledge of physical ailments. Never dealing emotionally with death, he briefly states that a character dies. The only commentary which he may imply is that death serves well to end a life of absurdities. Machado has Ahasverus savor this idea in "Viver!": "Posso morrer. Morrer! deliciosa ideia! Seculos de seculos vivi, cansado, mortificado, andando sempre, mais eil-os que acabam e vou morrer com elles."

The mystery of a woman's age is another recurrent incongruity. In "Uma senhora" a lady is desperate in her campaign to appear youthful, even after becoming a grandmother. In "O caso da vara" a lady is described in these terms: "Sinhá Rita tinha quarenta annos na certidão de baptismo, e vinte e sete nos olhos." Similar indications of interest in the phenomenon of a woman appearing younger than she really is are common in Machado's stories.

The senseless world of man is revealed by Machado in tales both fanciful and realistic. Most of these are based on curious variations of sociological and psychological phenomena.

In considering the social aspects of an incongruous world, Machado humorously depicts the sharp contrasts between lofty sociological ideals and basic individual self-interests. He commonly deals with government, science, and philosophy in their relationships to the functioning of society.

The institution of government is mocked in "A Sereníssima República" through satire directed at election procedures. In "O alienista" a governmental institution becomes subservient to "sacred" science: "A camara recusou acceital-a, declarando que a Casa Verde era uma instituição publica, e que a sciencia não podia ser emendada por votação administrativa, . . ."

Science provides the basis for satire and ironic humor in many of Machado's stories. In "Conto alexandrino," for example, scientific methods of experimentation lead to utter folly. Dr. Bacamarte, protagonist of "O alienista," while carrying on absurd experiments in his insane asylum, declares: "Meus senhores, a sciencia é cousa séria, e merece ser tratada com seriedade. Não dou razão dos meus actos de alienista a ninguem, salvo aos mestres e a Deus." Weird pseudo-scientific theories are propounded in "As academias de Sião" (e.g., the "gender of the soul") and in "O lapso" ("forgetting" the concept of paying).

Imagined or existing philosophical notions are often presented in Machado's stories. In "O segrèdo do bonzo" the theory that belief is the equivalent of truth is treated humorously. "Idéias de canário" deals with the concept that a man's philosophy is entirely dependent upon his own limited experience. Most of the philosophical elements in Machado's stories are related to his idea of an incongruous world. For example, in "Lágrimas de Xerxes" he points out that both life and love are fleeting in spite of the strong human yearning for permanency.

The stories most nearly approaching literary realism, as it is generally regarded, are those which illustrate individual psychological phenomena. These are clearly of special interest to Machado and his writings reveal a remarkable understanding of them.

That quirk of human nature which renders love between man and woman so impermanent is an incongruity which fascinated Machado. It is the most common theme of his stories—generally cast in "eternal triangle" plot structures. A usual "triangle" consists of husband and wife and a third man (usually the husband's friend) who in time becomes the wife's "true love." In "A cartomante" a husband shoots his wife's lover; in "Mariana" a wife completely forgets her love for her original suitor; in "A senhora do Galvão" a wife fights for her husband's faithfulness; in "Um erradio" Tosta steals Estrellita from his poet friend; while in "Três tesouros perdidos" the main character loses his wife, friend, and a large sum of money all in one day.

Illicit love affairs appropriately constitute an essential element in Machado's inconsistent and diabolical world. In "A igreja do Diabo" the Devil dictates: "A unica hypothese em que elle permittia amar ão proximo era quando se tratasse de amar as damas alheias, ... "...

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Carmelo Virgilio (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Love and the 'Causa Secreta' in the Tales of Machado de Assis," in Hispania, Vol. XLIX, No. 4, December, 1966, pp. 778-86.

[In the following essay, Virgilio examines Machado's representation of true love in his stories, detecting even in his early "romantic" stories that true love is rarely genuine, and usually motivated by self-interest.]

It has been observed that Machado de Assis' fiction reveals the author's preoccupation with the theme of true love versus self-love. One can add, however, that excluding perhaps Memorial de Aires, his last novel, true love generally appears in his works as a device concealing an ulterior motive deeply rooted in...

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John Nist (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Stories of Machado de Assis," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1, Spring, 1968, pp. 5-22.

[In the following overview of The Psychiatrist, and Other Stories , Nist discusses themes and techniques used in the stories, and praises Machado's subtle and understated style of writing.]

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908) is generally recognized as the finest novelist in all of Latin America. Indeed the epileptic quadroon who founded the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1897 combines such deep Dionysian wisdom of life with such cool Apollonian control of his medium that his genius must rank him with Flaubert, James, Kafka, and Proust. But it...

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Jack Schmitt and Lorie Ishimatsu (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Devil's Church, and Other Stories, by Machado de Assis, translated by Jack Schmitt and Lorie Ishimatsu, University of Texas Press, 1977, pp. ix-xiii.

[In the following essay, Schmitt and Ishimatsu examine Machado 's fiction as a kind of social and literary criticism, and also discuss the ways in which it approached literary modernism.]

The modern Brazilian short story begins with the mature works of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), acclaimed almost unanimously as Brazil's greatest writer. Between 1858 and 1906, Machado wrote more than two hundred stories, and no other writer in Brazil achieved his technical mastery of the story...

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Maria Luisa Nunes (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Artist's Identity versus the Social Role of the Writer: The Case for Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, December, 1983, pp. 187-96.

[In the following essay, Nunes defends Machado against attacks that he was unsympathetic to blacks in Brazil based on his apparant reticence on the issue of slavery. The critic cites examples from Machado's fiction that demonstrate the writer's "anti-slavery" position.]

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, 1839-1908, was the greatest Brazilian writer of his time and perhaps of all time. Because he wrote in Portuguese, his works have not received the universal acclamation they merit, but in the past...

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John Gledson (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Machado de Assis between Romance and Satire: 'A Parasita Azul'," in What's Past is Prologue: A Collection of Essays in Honor of L. J. Woodward, edited by Salvador Bacarisse, and others, Scottish Academic Press, 1984, pp. 57-69.

[In the following essay, Gledson discusses the parallels between the story "A Parasita Azul" and the plots of Machado's major novels. The critic argues that the story, when read as satire rather than straight-forward romance, can be better understood as a forerunner of Machado's later novels, which are more overtly concerned with social and political criticism.]

"A Parasita Azul" is the opening story of Machado de Assis' second...

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Earl E. Fitz (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Story Collections," in Machado de Assis, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 61-71.

[Below, Fitz traces the development of Machado as a short story writer, commenting on each of his collections.]

For all Machado's innovative skill and imagination as a novelist, many critics, including Lucia Miguel Pereira, Renard Pérez, and Barrèto Filho, believe he attained his highest levels of excellence in the demanding short story form, a genre Machado cultivated throughout his career. His first published story, a comic piece about mistaken identity and a spurious love affair involving the narrator's wife and best friend entitled, "Três tesouros perdidos" (Three...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Machado, Jose Bettencourt. Machado of Brazil: The Life and Times of Machado de Assis, Brazil's Greatest Novelist, second edition. New York: Charles Frank Publications, 1962, 246 p.

Bio-critical study of Machado's life and work.


Bagby, Albert I., Jr. "Brazilian Literary and Bibliographic Studies over the Last Twenty Years." The Modern Language Journal LIX, No. 4 (April 1975): 186-89.

Acquaints English-speaking readers with reference materials on Machado and Brazilian literature in general.


Barrow, Leo L. "Ingratitude in the...

(The entire section is 438 words.)