Considered by many to be Brazil’s greatest novelist, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was the son of a mulatto (mixed race) house painter and a Portuguese woman. Little is known of his early life, but, by the time he was seventeen years old, he was working as an apprentice printer and had already published his first poems. Philosopher or Dog?, which serves as a sequel to Memórias Pástumas de Brás Cubas (1881; The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, 1951; better known as Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1952), is one of the masterpieces with which his long career culminated.
Philosopher or Dog? does not pretend to be realistic. Rather, it presents a world rich in metaphor and illusion, a world like the one that exists but also more orderly and more harrowing. One of the novel’s themes is summed up in the philosopher Quincas Borba’s apparently comical moral to an eccentric story he tells Rubião: “To the victor the potatoes.” Though Quincas Borba thinks the story is about the triumph of humanity, it instead describes the amorality of the human struggle for survival.
The main subject of the novel is self-love, whose antidote is love. Self-deception and self-justification support the self-love of almost all the characters. Palha and Sophia both love themselves and care about Rubião only for what they can get from him. Carlos Maria is a blatant narcissist. Dr. Camacho is a self-involved manipulator who appeals to Rubião’s vanity by printing in his newspaper the story of Rubião’s rescue of Deolindo. Doña Tonica and Maria Benedicta blindly seek husbands to assure them of their own identities and worth. Only Doña Fernanda and Quincas Borba, the dog, love selflessly and faithfully. Although he begins as a naïve innocent, Rubião gradually succumbs to the conflicting egos of those around him and escapes into a madness in which he imagines himself to be a powerful emperor. Machado de Assis does not offer stereotypical heroes and villains. Rather, he portrays his characters with insight and compassion.
Early in the novel, Rubião withholds the fact that philosopher Quincas Borba has sent him a letter that suggests his own insanity. Rubião is afraid that, on the basis of the philosopher’s madness, Quincas Borba’s will might be nullified. Rubião would therefore receive no inheritance. Rubião, however, is not a bad man. The good are beguiled by selfish and vain thoughts, and the selfish and vain are capable of acts of kindness and charity. One...
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