A Brazilian Tenement

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A Brazilian Tenement

by Aluísio Azevedo


A novel set in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the 1870s; first published in Portuguese (as O cortiço) in 1890, in English in 1926.


Set in a Rio de Janeiro tenement, the novel focuses on the daily lives of its residents and its owner, as well as the owner’s relationship with some higher-class neighbors.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Brazilian writer Aluísio Tancredo Gonçalves de Azevedo was born in São Luis do Maranhão in 1857, when Brazil was still a monarchy. An immigrant from Portugal, his mother, Emilia Amalia Pinto de Magalhães, was, unlike many of the people around her, literate. She was also unconventional. First she shocked the townspeople by leaving her husband, a philanderer who mistreated her. Her second husband, David Gonçalves de Azevedo, was a vice-consul of Portugal. Again she scandalized the city, this time by moving into his townhouse without marrying him. The couple had three sons, including Aluísio, who were all illegitimate until their father acknowledged them as his offspring and heirs in 1864. Moving to Rio de Janeiro in 1876, Aluísio Azevedo studied at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, worked as a cartoonist for political and humor magazines, and began his writing career there. Initially he wrote unrealistic romantic tales, but then transitioned into naturalist novels that concentrated on telling stories in all their often grim detail. With the 1881 publication of O mulato, Rio critics began to recognize Azevedo as a premier writer of Brazilian naturalism. His masterpiece, A Brazilian Tenement, is recognized as one of the republic’s foremost nineteenth-century novels. Serving as a historical document of sorts, the story provides a window into lower-class life in Brazil during the tumultuous 1870s.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Brazilian naturalism

Azevedo grew up in his father’s comfortable tile-faced townhouse, with a strong ambition to profit from the books he wrote. When naturalism came into vogue in Brazil (1880 to 1895), he shifted from writing romantic potboilers to this more realistic genre, which invoked scientific terms in the telling of a story. Like other writers in Brazil at the time, Azevedo based his naturalist stories on three fundamental suppositions:

1) Change is either impossible or has negative consequences;

2) The sexual drive is the most significant in human life;

3) Environment and genetics determine a person’s actions and character; human will is of little consequence.

(Haberly, p. 337)

These were certainly grim suppositions. The question is, why at this point in time was Brazil ripe for such pessimism? If one keeps in mind that the few readers in late 1800s Brazil belonged to the upper class, there is a reasonable explanation. These upper-class readers lived in a tumultuous decade, in which events threatened to upset the stable empire of Brazil, which for so long had been a monarchy dominated by the upper class and a slave society. Upper-class Brazilians were full of fear, worried about the imminent abolition of slavery, about heightened competition from all the immigrants flooding the nation from Europe, and about the emergence of fresh “progressive” ways of working and living, as reflected in the rise of new tenements in Azevedo’s novel.

Political backdrop

A Brazilian Tenement takes place in the late nineteenth century, a time of transition in Brazilian politics. At the beginning of the century (1808), to escape the invading French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte, the monarch Dom João VI moved his court from Portugal to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Once there, he transformed Rio into a more powerful city politically and economically, opening its ports to international trade. The king returned to Portugal in 1816, and a few years later (1822) Brazil declared independence, becoming a separate monarchy for 67 years. Its final ruler, Dom Pedro II, enjoyed a long stable reign (1840-89), which ended a year before Azevedo’s novel appeared. In 1889 Brazil replaced its monarchy with a republic, but enthusiasm for the change was far from universal. In many ways a monarchist mentality still prevailed. Back in 1808 Dom João VI had brought with him to Brazil thousands of courtiers, setting the stage for a society based on notions of aristocracy that still held sway at the end of the century. To be sure, Brazil’s aristocracy was not purely hereditary—patents of nobility were bought and sold. In the novel, the tenement owner João Romão dreams of buying the title of count, while Miranda, his neighbor, becomes a baron, thanks to his social success. “He began,” says the novel, “to dream of a baronetcy, this ambition… would cost money” (Azevedo, A Brazilian Tenement, p. 27).


Society’s hierarchy rested on a foundation of slavery, which began after the Portuguese arrived in 1500 and converted Brazil into an overseas colony that supplied Portugal with raw materials such as wood, cotton, sugar, coffee, gold, and diamonds. Slavery would endure for the next 400 years, involving brutal 15-to 18-hour workdays during harvest time, along with whippings, brandings, and other harsh punishments. Around 90 percent of Brazil’s slaves still lived in rural areas at the time of the novel. Conditions were somewhat better for the minority of city slaves. They often went unnoticed, due to their co-existence with the free black population in cities. Also, the cities offered more opportunities for slaves to earn income in their spare time, and public whipping was prohibited in urban centers.

Slaves in Brazil could hire themselves out for a fee on the frequent Catholic holidays, and then use their accumulated money to purchase their own freedom. By 1860 the free black population had grown so large that slaves numbered less than 17 percent of a population that was primarily black, mulatto, and mestizo. The white sector formed less than 40 percent of the population. It was not uncommon for white masters to free their slave mistresses, their children from these unions, and their elderly slaves. Meanwhile, Brazil began to emancipate its slaves, in stages, from the termination of the slave trade in 1850, to the Law of the Free Womb in 1870, which proclaimed that blacks would no longer be born into slavery, to complete abolition in 1888. In the novel, an old Brazilian laments the demise of slavery: “[H]e vented his spleen on the times, the customs and the changes, all for the worse, as he was ever ready to point out. . . . The old man hit upon the subject of the abolition agitation” (A Brazilian Tenement, pp. 31-32).

The agitation stemmed from foreign ideas—such as the growing global disdain for slavery—and from changes within Brazil itself. After mid-century, many Brazilians began to view slavery as “backward” and incompatible with progress. The enforcement in the 1850s of the ban on the international slave trade encouraged this point of view, as did abolition in other Latin American countries and the United States in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, within Brazil, sons of the rural elite were moving away from their homes into cities and becoming professionals rather than planters. Distanced from their heritage, they began to turn a critical, reformist eye on the institutions from which they descended.

Immigration and internal migration

Once slavery’s collapse appeared imminent, Brazil’s doors opened wider to immigrants from Europe

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in an attempt to find cheap labor. The first immigrant schemes were developed in the 1820s in Brazil, but it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that immigration occurred on a mass scale. In order to supply labor to the booming coffee regions of southern Brazil, many slaves were transferred from the declining Northeastern sugar regions. However “even if every slave in the Northeast had moved south they could not have furnished the labor needed in the coffee economy” (Skidmore and Smith, p. 146). The acute demand for labor made immigration a top priority. Most of these immigrants came from Portugal, Italy, and Spain, to the coffee regions of southern Brazil, in hopes of someday acquiring land. They are represented in the novel by Jerónimo, a native of Portugal, who immigrates to Brazil as a colono, or hired plantation worker, but finds himself forced to migrate with his wife and child to the city because of the poor return on his hard labor. For a time, he fares better there, finding work as a granite blaster and rising to the position of foreman.

[Jerónimo] had come to Brazil contracted as a farm hand, and had labored like a beast on a plantation for two years. There he lived among the slaves and endured the hardest life he ever had known. His contract finished, finding himself with nothing accumulated for all this intense effort and with no future for his wife and little girl, he refused to continue longer and came to the city, where he found employment in a quarry, breaking stone for a miserable wage. By dint of Piedade ‘s poorly paid laundry work, they managed to keep a roof over their heads and not go hungry.

(A Brazilian Tenement, p. 66)



(Hahner, Poverty and Politics, pp. 7, 26)

In the 1870s, the decade in which the novel takes place, there was a huge influx of immigrants (200,000 entered Brazil between 1872 and 1880). One consequence of all this immigration was increased competition for jobs in the southern cities. Though industrialization was increasing, there were not enough positions for the rising urban population, so that many residents felt compelled to enter the informal economy as peddlers, laundresses, and the like. Meanwhile, blessed with an abundant labor pool, employers aggravated the tensions between native Brazilians and immigrants by keeping wages low and otherwise contributing to much of the anti-immigrant resentment depicted in the novel

Reform and the lower classes

Azevedo’s novel is set in Rio tenements in an era when they housed increasing numbers of the city’s working population. As indicated, it was also an era of reform, in which progressive ideas such as the abolition of slavery, the promotion of mass immigration, the separation of church and state, and educational and political change dominated discussion. Though Brazil was still an empire in the 1870s, the emperor moved into the political background and gave more power to his ministers, property qualifications were lowered for voters, and the judicial branch grew more independent. These and other reforms were capped in 1888 with the abolition of slavery and in 1889 with the elimination of the emperor and the transformation of the country into a republic. But its power structure remained largely intact, and Brazil’s population “continued to be exploited as it always had been” (Bethell, p. 726). Little, for example, was done to alter the appalling living conditions that are vividly rendered in A Brazilian Tenement

Problems only escalated as the end of the century approached. The population grew from 3.8 million in 1822, to more than 10 million in 1872, to 14 million in 1889 (Bethell, p. 728). Hoping for positions in Brazil’s railways, banks, and industries, immigrants continued to pour into the cities. Some 70 percent of these immigrants settled in Rio, which nearly doubled in population between 1872 and 1890, from 274,972 to 522,651 inhabitants (Bethell, p. 728). In A Brazilian Tenement, the male protagonists are mostly immigrants while Brazilians play minor roles, a dynamic that reflects the population in Rio and its tenements at the time.

Tenement life

While immigration continued apace, conditions improved in cities—in water, sewage, housing, and transportation services. At the same time, however, the swelling population stimulated the growth of tenement buildings to house the new urban masses, whose presence “raised new questions and created problems of social control, which an elite habituated to disciplined slaves still did not know how to deal with” (Bethell, p. 733).

Rio’s workers lived in sharp contrast to the elite strata of society, whose members enjoyed dining in downtown Rio cafes, shopping on the elegant Rua Ouvidor, and attending the theater and upscale parties. Because of the high cost of homes in Rio, only the middle and upper classes could afford to live in comfort; rents escalated to such a degree that the only housing affordable to the urban poor became tenement dwellings. Workers would often pay a quarter of their salaries to live in these places, while tenement owners grew rich with profit. Annual rents might generate as much as 50 percent profit for the owners over the buildings’ original cost (Hahner, Poverty and Politics, p. 25). Often tenements were “carelessly constructed in violation of all rules of hygiene, just to have as many rooms as possible in order to produce more revenue for their owners” (Sousa in Hahner, Poverty and Politics, p. 25). In other words, tenement owners grew rich by cramming Rio’s workers into substandard, disease-ridden housing. Luckier residents might occupy a small apartment in the tenement, with a living room, kitchen, and bedroom. The less fortunate were relegated to “narrow and dark cubicles packed with people” (Costa in Hahner, Poverty and Politics, p. 25). In the midst of several of these cubicles was an interior patio, which contained latrines, water spigots, tubs, and space for drying clothes, until, in time, much of this space was replaced by additional rooms for rent. In the novel, the tenement owner, João Romão, shares with his neighbor plans to rebuild the dwelling after a fire:

[H]e explained his project. The courtyard was wider than was really necessary. He intended to extend the line of houses farther toward the front on the left-hand side, against the wall toward Miranda. The burned part would be rebuilt and a second story added to the whole. . . . Then, instead of a hundred tenants, he expected the new construction would enable him to accommodate at least four hundred. ...

(A Brazilian Tenement, p. 251)

Yellow fever

As more tenements were built in damp and diseased areas, overcrowding created even less sanitary conditions for the urban poor. Such conditions contributed to the reappearance in 1870s Rio of yellow fever, a disease that had been almost absent in the 1860s and that would not leave the city until the successful eradication campaign of the early twentieth century. Extremely serious outbreaks of the yellow fever occurred in 1873 and 1876, causing more than 7,000 fatalities between them. After the 1873 out-break, Pereira Rego, president of the Board of Health, determined that the disease had two main causes: clogged sewers and the filthy tenements housing the poor. As Sidney Chalhoub maintains, “the identification of the [tenements] as the cooking pots for the germs of yellow fever was of enormous symbolic and political significance” (Chalhoub, p. 456). Once tenements were identified as a main source of the yellow fever, public officials began to define “tenements” as broadly as possible, concluding that Rio’s entire downtown area was filled with them. City planners, dreaming of demolishing all of Rio’s tenements, began gradually to shut them down. As many critics have noted, city officials were also motivated by fear of the lower classes, including the many ex-slaves who inhabited the tenements. Because nobody made any serious effort to provide alternative housing, the former tenement dwellers began moving to the hills of Rio, where they started building the shantytowns that have been prominent throughout the twentieth century.

Yellow fever proved fatal to European immigrants more often than to native Brazilians. In Azevedo’s novel an Italian tenement dweller dies of the disease. The affliction threatened the rich as well as the poor, and unsurprisingly the city’s most urgent concerns were for its upper-class citizens. The alleged lower-class origins of the disease brought to the forefront the position of servants. During the 1870s about 71 percent of all working women and 15 percent of all working men labored as servants: wet-nurses, seamstresses, laundresses, water carriers, cooks, and maids (Graham, pp. 4-5). Domestic servants provided the link between upper-class homes and the tenement slums in which the servants themselves lived. Suddenly these urban masses became the problem of the society at large, which was filled with a dread of contagion. Families grew fearful of laundresses, many of whom washed and hung clothes around the tenements’ communal tubs; in 1891 the city council would finally prohibit tenement dwellers from washing any but their own clothing in these tubs (Graham, p. 117). Wet-nurses in particular were seen as carriers of disease. While various proposals attempted to regulate domestic servants, the unsanitary, overcrowded tenements, as well as cases of yellow fever, continued through the end of the nineteenth century.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel concerns the growth of an urban Rio de Janeiro tenement, built by the Portuguese immigrant João Romão with the help of a slave woman, Bertoleza. João enriches his tenement by exploiting the slave woman, who becomes his partner and lover, and by cheating both customers and residents. His initial thrifti-ness is soon replaced by a burning desire (fueled by a competitive jealousy of his higher-class neighbor, Miranda) to attain not only economic wealth, but to rise socially as well.

Joao’s neighbor, Miranda, is a Portuguese merchant with a business in downtown Rio. Married to Dona Estella because of her dowry, Miranda must rely on this dowry for the security of his business, though he and his wife despise each other. João owns not only the tenement but also a store and restaurant frequented by the tenants, as well as a nearby quarry. Miranda lives in a townhouse next door to Joao’s growing tenement complex and the two quickly lock horns. Jealous of his Portuguese neighbor’s financial success, Miranda, a Portuguese immigrant himself, decides to get even by acquiring an aristocratic title for himself. Living with Miranda is the aged Botelho, an old “parasite” who had been a slave broker in his youth, and who speaks of “a voyage he once made to Africa for a cargo of negroes” (A Brazilian Tenement, p. 31). He subsequently suffered from bad luck and now depends on Miranda for his sustenance.

In full naturalist detail, the novel describes the residents of the tenement, discussing their ethnicity, their occupations, and often their physical characteristics: one female resident, for instance, is described as “an aggressive Portuguese much given to shouting, with thick, hairy arms and the general build of a draft horse” (A Brazilian Tenement, p. 41). The novel promotes an animalistic view of the residents, who “lived herded together like cattle and toiled from sun to sun with no ideals or ambitions other than to eat and sleep and procreate” (A Brazilian Tenement, p. 216). Peddlers, a carpenter, laundresses, a policeman, Italian immigrants, and other types are described by the third-person narrator, who contrasts the immigrants to the Brazilians. For example, the narrator speaks of how “the Portuguese women wore bright silk handkerchiefs and the Brazilians a spray of flowers in their elaborately dressed hair” (A Brazilian Tenement, p. 71).

With his wife and child, the hard-working Portuguese immigrant Jerónimo is hired as foreman at the quarry and moves with his family into the tenement. As João Romão experiences his economic and social ascent, Jerónimo experiences his concomitant descent. He abandons his wife, Piedade, for a beautiful, charming mulatta, Rita, whom he first encounters at a Sunday dance session in the tenement. Rita has a lover, Firmo, who “enjoyed the distinction of having been born at court, where his father was one of the Emperor’s stable-hands” (A Brazilian Tenement, p. 83).

Before Jerónimo abandons Piedade for Rita, the two women have a physical fight, during which Piedade insults Rita’s black origins and Rita insults Piedade’s foreign origins. Piedade attributes most of her bad luck to the climate and to the tropical sun of Brazil. “In moments of desperation she raised her clenched hands, not against the man she awaited, but in impotent rage against the bright sunlight, this tropic glare that causes men’s blood to boil and their senses to overcome their reason” (A Brazilian Tenement, p. 236). As the two women fight, tenement dwellers cheer and take sides according to ethnicity—immigrant against Brazilian. The fight is cut short when a fire erupts in the tenement, and all tenement dwellers unite to extinguish the flames.

After eliminating his competitor, Firmo, by clubbing him to death, Jerónimo leaves the tenement to live with Rita. Piedade suffers a moral decline, taking refuge in alcohol. Because Jerónimo has not paid for their daughter’s tuition, the daughter leaves school to live in the tenement, where she catches the eye of Pombinha. A prostitute, Pombinha has abandoned her husband and joined company with Leonie, a French prostitute who is godmother to the child of one of the tenement residents. The narrator describes Pombinha’s entry into the world of prostitution as nothing less than an inevitable consequence of the tenement environment: “the tenement tree had borne its fruit,” as it promises to do with Jerônimo’s neglected daughter (A Brazilian Tenement, p. 309).

Meanwhile, João Romão, in his eagerness to rise socially, arranges to marry the fair-skinned, educated daughter of his neighbor, Miranda, who is now a baron. An obstacle is the slave woman Bertoleza (his lover), who has toiled at Joao’s side for years and whose labor in fact elevated him to his current position as capitalist and socialite.

“Oh, yes,” remonstrates Bertoleza in self defense. “[N]ow you can ridicule me—now that I am not necessary to you any longer. But back in the days when you did need me, then my black body did very nicely for you, and you built your fortune on the sweat of my labor.”.

(A Brazilian Tenement, p. 298)

With the former slaver-trader who lives at Miranda’s, João devises the plan of locating Bertoleza’s original owners—he has misled her into believing that he already purchased her freedom. When the owners arrive to take her away, Bertoleza commits suicide rather than return to a life of slavery.

Laundresses and prostitutes

Most of the novel’s female characters do laundry for patrons, conducting their labor on the grounds of the tenement. In mid-to-late nineteenth century Brazil, laundresses washed and ironed outside their patrons’ homes. Around the middle of the century they performed this labor at public streams and fountains; when the tenements appeared they began conducting business in their interior patios. As one foreign visitor observed, “the workman leaves his house for his work, and the wife passes the whole day washing and ironing. The health of these women often breaks down from overwork” (Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex, p. 98). There were, however, few other choices for lower-class women at the time, and their income was generally critical to family survival. A large number were unschooled; few could even read or write.


As elsewhere in the world, it was not uncommon in nineteenth-century Brazil for marriages to be arranged by the parents, in order to guarantee a union that would economically or socially benefit the interested parties. In the novel the socially mobile and increasingly wealthy João arranges to marry the daughter of his higher-status neighbor, Miranda. Miranda’s own social status was attained by marrying into money; as the novel explains, unwilling to leave his adulteress wife, he was now “mortgaging himself to a she-devil who had brought him eighty thousand milreis and also incalculable shame and humiliation. He had an easy life, but he was eternally tied to a woman he loathed” (A Brazilian Tenement p. 25).

Brazil’s literacy rate never climbed higher than 15 percent before 1889. In the novel pretty young Pombinha is a laundry-list and letter writer for the older tenement dwellers, who correspond through her to their loved ones. Exposed to their anxieties and arguments, she hears the harsh realities that give the lie to her mother’s ideal of escape from tenement life through Pombinha’s forthcoming marriage to a man of better fortune. Marriage in late 1800s Brazil, understands Pombinha, does not guarantee happiness and can bring quite the reverse.

Actually a few of the novel’s female characters regard marriage as a foolhardy institution in light of the fact that a woman’s husband “was her master, he owned her. He had all the rights” (Hahner, Emancipating the Female Sex, p. 88). In the novel one of the female tenement dwellers rails at husbands and denigrates marriage in general:

They’re all alike. … If a woman is fool enough to try to please them, they get sick of her; and if she realizes that marriage is a joke and proceeds accordingly [sees other men], she’s treated to kicks and cuffs. . . .

(A Brazilian Tenement, p. 114)

For some women prostitution appeared to be a viable avenue of escape, from both male domination and economic misfortune. Never legalized but long tolerated in Brazil, prostitution included a luxury, high-class strata, called cocotes, who are represented in the novel by Leonie and later by Pombinha herself. They were finely dressed, self-employed prostitutes, who moved with discretion through theaters and other public places, garbed in silk, feathers, and jewels. Either French or pretending to be so, they catered to the Brazilian elite’s admiration for France and plied their trade with success. Burgeoning cities like Rio swarmed with unmarried men who paid prices that often brought prostitutes more income than laundresses or factory workers. While the genuine elite scorned these cocotes, they were accorded a measure of respect in the tenements:

Leonie, with the gaudy and exaggerated clothing usually affected by French cocotes, aroused much interest and admiration on her visits to [the tenement]. Her gown of steel-colored silk, trimmed with ox-blood, was short and saucy, exposing slippers the height of whose heels filled the laundresses with awe. Her twenty-button gloves reached almost to her armpits. A red parasol foaming with a sea of pink lace… and with a wonderfully carved handle was an acknowledged work of art. And her hat—not a woman in all of the ninety-five households could behold that hat without emotion. It was a large one, with two enormous wings and a nest of red velvet, over which hovered a whole bird, though a small bird.

(A Brazilian Tenement, p. 136)

Ethnic friction

In the novel, when Rita, a native Brazilian, battles with the Portuguese woman Piedade, a fire in the tenement ends the fight, and all the observers, who had initially taken sides according to ethnicity, join to put out the common aggressor, nature. The tenement dwellers share other common problems—such as alcohol abuse, the high number of single-mother households, and promiscuity. The immigrant Piedade degenerates into a promiscuous alcoholic after her husband rejects her for Rita; Florinda, the mulatta daughter of a native Brazilian, becomes pregnant out of wedlock.

The novel reflects real-life tensions between Brazilians and immigrants, based largely on attitudes and stereotypes of the day. Often, the immigrants received preferential treatment over native Brazilians in the labor market. Because of the late-nineteenth-century scientific theory of Darwinism, which taught that the fittest survive, and because of racial prejudices that considered the white race to be the most highly evolved, many believed that whitening the country would lead to progress. In the novel the seductive Rita fascinates Jerónimo, and she is likewise drawn to him, partly, says the novel, because of race: “He fascinated her with his strength and his seriousness, and the instinctive attraction of the male of a superior race immediately awakened a response in her mulatta blood” (A Brazilian Tenement, p. 226).

Another prejudice in Brazil at the time held that the white immigrants from Europe were harder workers than native Brazilians. Many plantation owners and capitalists held “a firm and unshakable belief in the innate laziness and irresponsibility of the black and racially mixed Brazilian masses” (Andrews, p. 89). In A Brazilian Tenement the once-industrious immigrant Jerónimo undergoes a transformation: “The Portuguese was thoroughly Brazilianized. He had become lazy and loved ease and luxury” (A Brazilian Tenement, p. 263). One reason for such stereotyping was the lingering effect of bondage; people tended to resist work conditions similar to those of slavery. “Experiences of slavery had produced a deep determination among all Brazilians, and particularly black ones, to avoid conditions of employment at all reminiscent of the slave regime” (Andrews, p. 112). On the other hand, European immigrants, often driven by a desire to earn their fortune in Brazil and then return home, were more accepting of harsh working conditions. Such factors increased racial tensions, and “those hatreds were further exacerbated by the discontent and resentment of Brazilians locked out of the labor market” (Andrews, p. 92). A 1893 census of the city of São Paulo showed that 79 percent of its factory workers, for example, were foreign born (Andrews, p. 97). The situation in Rio was not as extreme, for São Paulo subsidized immigration, but competition nevertheless existed.

Though it acknowledges this racial resentment, the novel portrays the Brazilian environment as even more powerful and debilitating. The seductress Rita represents Brazil in the novel: “She was the brilliant glare at midday, the red heat of the plantation field; she was the aroma of the vanilla tree, filling the Brazilian forest; she was the virgin palm which lifts its head aloft and scorns contact with another living thing; she was poisonous and marvelously sweet” (A Brazilian Tenement, p. 100). The Brazilian environment dooms even the industrious, suggests the novel; there is no escape.

Sources and literary context

Aluísio Azevedo is credited with introducing Brazil to naturalism, a genre that included detailed descriptions of places, characters, and the sexual exploits of these characters to substantiate the “scientific validity of the larger truths they were expounding” (Haberly, p. 336). In contrast to naturalism in France, where hopeful aspects entered into the genre, naturalism in Brazil was thoroughly pessimistic. Also, the novel was more explicit in its descriptions of sexuality than French novels of the day. Naturalist writers saw their function as comparable to that of a scientist: they placed their characters in certain volatile situations, then observed and recorded the outcomes in all their realism, no matter how grotesque or unappealing. In Azevedo’s case, this meant focusing on the filthy, disease-ridden tenements of Rio. Such a focus was at the time shocking to an audience accustomed to more “elevated” literature. A popular philosophy of the day, positivism, taught that the scientific method was the only way to acquire real knowledge. In keeping with this philosophy, Azevedo conducted “experiments” before writing A Brazilian Tenement. Disguised as a laborer, he visited tenements and even rented a room in one, living there only briefly because some of the neighbors became suspicious when he questioned them. Along with this firsthand research, Azevedo perused official papers and news articles that concerned tenements, which contributed to the documentary value of the novel.

Personally Azevedo was an abolitionist, and also harbored strong feelings about immigrants in his era, criticizing the fact that most of the tenements springing up in the city were owned and operated by foreigners. He attempted nevertheless to report his observations in neutral, scientific fashion. There was no ulterior motive here; he was not agitating for urban improvements. “His novel is, above all, a rationalization for inaction: environmentally and genetically maimed, the inhabitants of the tenement are largely beyond redemption” (Haberly, p. 339).


Though Azevedo did not have a political agenda in mind, his writing was influenced by philosophies of the day. In vogue in late-nineteenth-century Brazil was a set of scientifically based ideas that became known as “positivism.” Based largely on the teachings of Auguste Comte (the French father of sociology), positivism was a belief that the scientific method could create conditions of social progress. Positivists regarded society not as a collection of individuals but as a developing organism. In his novel, Azevedo describes the tenement as a growing entity that appears to have a life of its own, that seems to move and breathe.

The tenement was now in full activity and the confused sounds of the awakening neighborhood had given way to the steady din of normal movement. Individual voices no longer were distinguished, but instead was heard the compact roar of the entire populace. . . . There could be felt in that human fermentation, like the damp black loam that feeds the roots of a fragrant rambler, the source of vigorous life.

(A Brazilian Tenement, p. 39)

Another philosophy of the day, “determinism,” taught that people were products of habit and instinct, affected by adaptation to their environment, and that human will had little impact. The philosophy furthermore taught that race determined someone’s character, psychology, and potential. Given that the majority of Brazil’s population was black and mestizo or mulatto by 1890, such thinking encouraged a desire for white (allegedly more highly evolved) immigrants from Europe in the belief that the racial composition of Brazil would determine its progress. Unwilling to point to a history of slavery and landed estates as the root of its underdevelopment (which would Placethe blame on the elite), people looked for other culprits. Along with the tropical climate, hich was believed to affect a person’s genetic makeup, people blamed the ethnic balance in Brazil.


Initially some conservative reviewers hesitated to praise A Brazilian Tenement—in part because it included language and scenes considered scandalous and grotesque. However, the novel was generally well received by the more liberal Rio critics, and in reviews of the English translation (although much of the scandalous content was censored out of the translation). Acknowledging Azevedo’s objectivity, the Boston Transcript declared that he “set down implacably the slice of life that he has seen, that he knows as he knows himself. He does not interpret. Neither does he write with the conscious artistry of the author who would rather frame a neat sentence than create a real character” (Boston Transcript in Knight and James, p. 27). A New York Times book review praised Azevedo’s mastery of “the difficult art of progressing from the specific to the universal,” noting that Romão “is a recognizable individual” connected to his time and locale, yet the tenement owner “might almost stand as a personification of ruthless greed for possessions and material power” (New York Times Book Review, p. 22). Even now the novel’s setting and characters are called “powerful and convincing,” although today, a century after its initial release, the plot has been characterized as “far more melodramatic than realistic” (Haberly in González Echevarría and Pupo-Walker, p. 149).

—Olivia Treviño

For More Information

Andrews, George Reid. “Black and White Workers: São Paulo, Brazil, 1888-1928.” In The Abolition of Slavery and the Aftermath of Emancipation in Brazil Ed. Rebecca J. Scott. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1988.

Azevedo Aluísio. A Brazilian Tenement. Trans. Harry W. Brown. New York: Robert M. McBride, 1926.

Bethell, Leslie, ed. The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Chalhoub, Sidney. “The Politics of Disease Control: Yellow Fever and Race in Nineteenth Century Rio de Janeiro.” Journal of Latin American Studies 25, no. 3 (October 1993): 441.

González Echevarría, Roberto, and Enrique Pupo-Walker. The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature. Vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Graham, Sarah Lauderdale. House and Street: The Domestic World of Servants and Masters in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Haberly, David T. “Aluísio Azevedo.” In Latin Amen-can Writers. Vol. 2. Eds. Carlos A. Solé and Maria Isabel Abreu. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989.

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A Brazilian Tenement

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