Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Machado de Assis is considered the most “English” of Brazilian writers because of his subtle and often biting sense of humor and because of his laconic and understated diction. In part for the same reasons, he is a writer almost impossible to insert neatly into general observations of Brazilian literary history; his novels and short stories have none of the quality of datedness that is so evident in the works of most of his contemporaries. Though uncommonly long for a Brazilian short story, “The Psychiatrist” is an example of Machado de Assis’s skill as an illusionist.

The story is ostensibly drawn from a documentary source, the town’s chronicles, which makes of the entire tale a single preterit narrative block, a piece of history. Though there are numerous characters, only one, Bacamarte, is of real importance. Time is repeatedly compressed by summaries in which months of time are reduced to a single line. These manipulations all contribute to a very tight narrative scheme that in fact obeys the classic reductionist form of the genre.

Machado de Assis is also a master stylist. His narrator is privy to the contents of the chronicles on which he bases the story, but he never betrays any of the credulity the characters all show as a fundamental trait. The narrator consistently employs euphemisms, multiple adjectivation, and pseudophilosophical asides to create the illusion of an elegant and cultured style, but what these devices really create is a narrative style just a shade too grand for the implausible sequence of events. The result is that Bacamarte (the name means “blunderbuss”) is constantly seen in the light of a not altogether gentle irony, so that at the end, the cause of his death, like the cause of everything else, seems to be a simple case of incurable vanity.