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Philosopher or Dog? Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The questions readers ponder as Philosopher or Dog? unfolds concern the nature of winning and losing, the value of what is won in relation to how victory has been achieved, and the efforts of human ambition as either idealism or madness. Rubião is a modest, former schoolteacher from the provincial interior of Brazil who unexpectedly becomes heir to the wealth of Quincas Borba, an unbalanced philosopher who preaches the value of egotism and survival of the fittest. Along with the fortune, Rubião acquires responsibility for the dog of the deceased, also named Quincas Borba.

A third-person narrator balances Rubião’s recounting of the characters’ actions and dialogue, so a reader can evaluate appearance versus reality and intentions against actions. Rubião decides he no longer wishes to reside in his provincial hometown, going to live in Rio de Janeiro, seat of the imperial court. On his journey there, he meets Palha, a colleague who is indebted to him, and his alluring wife, Sofia. As Palha hears of the fortune Rubião has inherited, he and his wife resolve to capitalize on it to their benefit. Enamored of Sofia, sending her expensive gifts, and secretly imagining adultery with her, Rubião is taken in by the pair. Palha encourages the attraction. Sofia nurtures her vanity.

Another predator is Camacho, a shiftless politician, who sees how easily he can manipulate the naïve Rubião, who has just rescued a boy from an accident. Rubião thinks his action commonplace; nonetheless, Camacho plays up its heroics, publicizing it and inflating his victim’s vulnerable ego. Rubião, a simple person, had led a settled provincial life. Now his life has become unbalanced, torn by people seeking advantages from him and divided by guilt over his wealth and sinful thoughts. Attempting to steady himself, he exaggerates his importance, falling finally under the delusion of considering himself emperor of the French.

Those who used him now ignore his plight. Even the child he rescued taunts him in a street gang. Nonetheless, in the midst of this inhumanity, a young woman who only distantly knows Rubião shows understanding and sympathy both for him and his dog. The dog responds naturally to the affection. Rubião is committed to an asylum, but he escapes, trying to return to his old home and the settled life he had enjoyed. Quincas Borba, the dog, faithfully follows him.

Rubião, however, does not recover. Along with wealth, he absorbed the spirit of the philosophy of Quincas Borba the man: egotism and self-love. When Rubião observes in conclusion that to the victor go the spoils, the reader is struck with an insight that escapes the commentator. What do winners gain from avarice and materialism that ends in madness, that cannot recognize the simple balm of affection and generosity a kind stranger or dog may offer?


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Quincas Borba (Joaquim Borba dos Santos), a wealthy man and a self-proclaimed philosopher, dies and leaves his large estate to his friend, Rubião, a teacher. The only condition of the bequest is that Rubião care for Quincas Borba’s dog, also named Quincas Borba, as if the dog were human. Rubião travels from the provincial town of Barbacena to the city of Rio de Janiero to establish himself with his newly inherited wealth. On the train, he meets Christiano Palha and Palha’s wife, Sophia. Rubião soon becomes infatuated with Sophia.

In Rio, Palha borrows money from Rubião to invest in business, and the two men become partners. Rubião also meets Carlos Maria, an arrogant young man, and Freitas, an unsuccessful middle-aged man, who exploit Rubião for his wealth and innocence. Major Siqueira and his thirty-nine-year-old daughter, Doña Tonica, attach themselves to Rubião, hoping that Rubião will marry Doña Tonica, who meanwhile becomes jealous of Sophia.

Rubião misinterprets as a love offering a box of strawberries Sophia had sent him. At the Palhas’s house in Santa Thereza, he clutches her hand and makes his affection clear...

(The entire section is 1,336 words.)