Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is well known for writing between the lines. The quintessential example of this technique is his most famous novel, Dom Casmurro (1899), which centers on a similar theme of adultery. Dom Casmurro is certain that his wife, Capitú, has been unfaithful to him by committing adultery with a mutual friend. The novel is written in such a way, however, that the reader is never certain of either her guilt or her innocence. Indeed, the question remains the central debate among critics of the novel.

In “Midnight Mass,” Machado tells two stories in one: a sketch of the period, and the story of a woman who eventually finds happiness despite her present circumstances. It is the gradual accretion of careful detail that both creates the sketch of manners and culminates in Conceição’s personal story. Although each detail alone seems unambiguous, their accumulation results in an ambiguous narrative that leaves both the narrator and the reader in a quandary, wondering if Conceição was unfaithful, if her husband did die of shock, why Conceição married so soon after being widowed, why she moved, and if she was pregnant. Machado once again uses detail, fact, if you will, to create a narrative resistant to factual interpretation, a narrative of ambiguity.