THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 1857 to the turn of the century; published in Portuguese in 1899, in English in 1953.
A retired, aristocratic lawyer writes a jaded and ironic account of his teenage courtship, marriage, and later abandonment of his apparently unfaithful wife.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was born in Rio de Janeiro, in 1839. His parents—his father was a mulatto and his mother a Portuguese immigrant from the Azores—lived as dependents, or agregados, in the household of a wealthy family. Machado himself worked as a journalist, editor, and typesetter before taking a position as a civil servant at the age of 27. He spent his whole life in Rio de Janeiro—then the capital and largest city of Brazil—where he took an active part in the fledgling cultural life. For over 40 years Machado produced a steady stream of poems, criticism, short stories, newspaper columns, translations from English and French, and nine novels. His intellectual peers praised his voluminous work, and elected him the first President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1897, a post that he held until his death in 1908. Machado wrote Dom Casmurro during the 1890s, when he had already established his literary reputation and Brazil was in its first decade of existence as an independent republic rather than an empire.
The novel opens in 1857, during a prosperous period in the reign of Emperor Pedro II (1840-89). Although Brazil was slowly beginning to transform itself, the nation’s mid-nineteenth-century society was still traditional and patriarchal, depending on slaves to raise sugar and coffee for export to Europe. White Brazilian male owners of vast fazendas (plantations) were the patriarchs who dominated society; they directed their families and slaves, as well as Brazil’s political and cultural landscape. Dom Pedro II ruled as the primary father-figure of all the heads of families. (Used most often for people of nobility, Dom is a title of respect in Brazilian society.) The last surviving empire based in the New World, Brazil was a constitutional monarchy with a two-party political system and representative legislature. Its “representative nature was a farce,” however; the Emperor retained ultimate control, and the legislature was elected and filled by a minuscule segment of the population, Brazil’s male landowners (Gledson, p. 4).
Dom Pedro II’s rule ushered in a period of political stability and economic expansion, during which Brazil’s modernization began. The intellectual and cultural life of Rio de Janeiro and the other cities of Brazil grew to unprecedented proportions. However, while the Emperor encouraged the country’s modernization and urbanization, Brazil under his reign failed to keep up with the pace of change set by European nations at the time. To what degree this failure can be attributed to the emperor is open to question. According to one of the baronesses of the day, “[Pedro II’s] palace seemed a graveyard to all lively people, especially to young men and women” (Ortigao in Freyre, Order and Progress, p. 62). But hers was by no means a unanimous opinion; others regarded Pedro II as an enlightened, charismatic leader.
Fazendas and the ruling class
For centuries, as both a Portuguese colony and an independent nation, Brazilian society consisted of an upper class of wealthy European rulers and an underclass of African, mulatto, and mestizo slaves. There was also a diverse middle segment of government officials, merchants, artisans, doctors, lawyers, teachers, priests, and army officers; from the 1850s to the 1890s, this middle segment would become large enough to influence developments in Brazil and to challenge the rural upper class.
The upper class connected with the underclass on the fazendas of the patriarchal families. While upper-class males oversaw the agricultural operations involved in raising sugar and coffee, the actual work was done by the slaves. A fazenda formed a self-sufficient community that fed the master’s family as well as the slaves with the food grown on its land. The landowners comprised an oligarchic elite, whose members controlled the national economy and society, just as they did their families and slaves. An aristocratic group, the landowners held titles such as Viscount, Baron, and Duke. The protagonist of Dom Casmurro, Bento Santiago, grew up in a ruling-class family, though without an aristocratic title. His father owned a fazenda in Itaguai, a town 40 miles west of Rio de Janeiro.
Within the ruling families, the patriarchal regime strove to distinguish women from men as much as possible. While men were conceived of as active, mobile, and strong, women were regarded as passive, domestic, and weak. Only sons had the opportunity to receive an education; daughters were raised solely to serve their husbands and male relatives. Accordingly, in Dom Casmurro Bento studies both theology and law, while his female playmate, Ca-pitu, stays home, helping his mother, who is herself dedicated to her son.
Women’s communication with males outside the family occurred rarely and was restricted to subtle gestures. Marriage outside the same class (and race) was not permitted, nor could the bride freely choose her husband-to-be. Familial obligations and alliances took precedence over love or attraction. The society condoned a double standard of sexual morality that condemned women for extramarital affairs, but turned a blind eye to men’s extramarital sexual relations with their slaves or with prostitutes. Although there were cases of women who took on a masculine role and actively directed plantations, the vast majority of upper-class Brazilian women were restricted to their homes and their roles as wives and mothers.
Many women channeled their energy into devotion to the Catholic Church. Religion allowed them to leave their homes for Mass, and gave them the opportunity to go to confession, which one historian credits with preserving the sanity of Brazilian women in such a patriarchal society. Confession provided an outlet for “many anxieties, many repressed desires” (Freyre, Mansions, p. 74). Dona Gloria, the mother of the novel’s Bento Santiago, necessarily has some business dealings, yet she still plays a passive role; she collects income from real-estate investments made after the sale of her deceased husband’s plantation. Remaining secluded in her home, Dona Gloria devotes her life to the Catholic Church, her adolescent son, and the memory of her dead husband.
THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRAZIL
Although the Brazilian Constitution of 1824 guaranteed religious liberty, it also made Roman Catholicism the state religion. “The emperor continued to exercise royal patronage over the Church within his domains, as his Portuguese ancestors had done for centuries,” which means that Pedro II controlled the most important Church decisions (Burns, p. 183). The Church and the ruling class were thus intertwined, with sons of the ruling class filling the ranks of priests and bishops. Individual priests served ruling-class families in private chapels and as tutors more often than the priests served their bishops. Priests enjoyed the privileges of their high position in the social hierarchy, as does Dom Casmurro’s Father Cabral, who tutors young Bento in Latin and has a taste for gourmet foods, in the cities, the Church at first played important roles in education and in government—in the early nineteenth century, taking holy orders was a means for a young man of the upper class to reach a position of intellectual or political importance. However, the Church’s power waned as modernization decreased the attraction of gifted men to its ranks. When Bento and his friend Escobar enter the seminary in the late 1850s, the number of seminarians is decreasing because of greater interest in commerce, law, and medicine. In the 1870s the Brazilian Church began to reform itself by recruiting priests and other clergy from overseas and by systematically replacing the native-born clergy.
The ruling class in the cities
During the nineteenth century, the cities of Brazil experienced an economic boom that attracted increasing migration of the aristocratic class from the countryside. In the city the hierarchy and structure of the countryside was repeated in miniature: the ruling families brought their slaves into the cities and settled into mansions on large properties. The Santiago family of Dom Casmurro joins this tide in the 1840s, moving from the countryside to a mansion on the Rua de Matacavalos, an exclusive area near the center of Rio de Janeiro.
Smaller in scale than their country estates, the urban mansions of the elite still attempted to create an enclosed world. A typical mansion stood three or four stories high, and was built of stone, like a fortress, to safeguard the owner’s valuables and women from thieves of various sorts. Women were limited to household contacts and to whatever sights and sounds of the street they could glean from the verandah or garden—not that the street afforded much excitement. Upper-class families disdained traveling by foot through the dirty and poorly lit city streets; instead, they rode in enclosed carriages that protected them from the gaze and “affronts” of the common people. A French visitor who bemoaned the lack of street life wrote, “Compared to that of Spanish-American cities, the private life of Rio de Janeiro is confined to the home” (Radiguet in Freyre, Order and Progress, p. 64). Despite the restricted access of young women in upper-class society, they nevertheless managed to be courted by young men. The young women flirted with gestures and fans, making seemingly innocuous movements that were magnified in significance by women’s confinement. At one point in the novel, for example, Capitu meets the glance of a passerby, a gesture that Bento jealously interprets as an overt flirtation.
In the city, the space devoted to slaves’ quarters was reduced and often renamed “servants’ quarters.” The slaves cared for the mansion’s inhabitants, rooms, and gardens (a source of food in the larger mansions), tended the horses and other animals, and drove the family’s carriage. Many slaves worked away from the mansion as physical laborers, hired out by their owners. Any wages found their way into the master’s pocket. The novel’s Dona Gloria derives part of her income in this way.
Between the status of slave and master, another category of people developed in Brazil: that of the dependents, or agregados. Men and women who were neither wholly free, nor wholly bound, agregados worked for the ruling-class families, but not for wages. The principle that governed their lives was the reciprocity of favors. In return for their services, the family provided for their needs. The dependent might care for and educate the children, or engage in clerical or domestic duties. For example, Jose Dias, the Santiagos’ dependent in Dom Casmurro, serves the family as a scribe, an adviser, a would-be doctor, and a companion. With the waning of slavery, urbanites favored the use of European immigrants as live-in dependents.
The agregados embodied some of the contradictions of Brazil’s changing society. They enabled the rich to avoid having slaves at a time when slavery came under criticism, but, like slaves, they received no wages for their labor. The agregados had more freedom than slaves, but they lacked true independence because they could be dismissed at any time. They had to show absolute deference to the family and especially to the patriarch in all matters. The dependents lived as if they were extended members of families, yet could neither forget their role nor their lower class. Despite the close physical proximity between an aristocratic family and their dependents, marriage across the class divide was forbidden; a number of Machado’s earlier novels centered on the dilemma of agregados who fell in love with a social superior. Furthermore, there was no great cohesion among the agregados, for the importance of remaining in the good graces of the wealthy made rivals of dependents and other favor seekers. In Dom Casmurro, Jose Dias makes subtle power plays against his main rivals for access to the Santiagos’ privilege.
Urbanization and modernization
During the reign of Pedro II, the middle class expanded while the upper and lower classes shrank. Developments in European society, thought, and economy resounded in Brazil, leading to a gradual transformation of its society.
One of the first signals (and instigators) of change was the demise of the slave trade. Although slavery itself would not be outlawed in Brazil until 1888, the government banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1850. The internal and external pressures to end the slave trade came from the same source: Europe. While Brazil’s slave-driven economy exported tropical goods to Europe, the nation imported from Europe the notion that slavery was a corrupt, outdated system. In Europe progressive thinkers decried the cruelties of slavery, while capitalists regarded it as an inferior economic system to wage-earning that locked up the owner’s capital, since a slave could not be fired. Loathing the idea of appearing backwards and culturally inferior in the eyes of Europeans, educated, urban Brazilians formed an abolition movement. They exerted internal pressure that, along with the demands of England, Brazil’s largest trading partner, terminated the slave trade.
The end of the slave trade had two major effects on the development of modern Brazil. The demise of the extensive trading enterprise freed a great deal of capital for investments in trade and infrastructure, which helped the economy to boom; and the drying up of the slave labor pool encouraged European immigration. The combined effects would propel changes in the economy and urban environment. Meanwhile, the dominant agricultural export shifted from sugar to coffee, which moved the wealth of the nation from the north to the coffee-producing southern regions around the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The expanding coffee plantations turned to Italian immigrants, instead of slaves, for labor. In the 1850s the increase in capital and the influx of Europeans encouraged the beginnings of industrialization, a transformation supported by the educated Emperor. Telegraphs and railroads were constructed, a banking system was developed, and factories opened. However, the pace of industrialization was slow in comparison to that of other nations, since slave labor persisted to a degree. Using slaves was still considered cheaper than buying and maintaining machinery.
Along with industrial and technological developments, the arts and education flourished in Rio de Janeiro, the first city of Brazil and, by the 1850s, also the largest in South America, with a population of over 600,000 (Burns, p. 164). The city became a thriving metropolis during the 1850s, complete with gas lighting and paved streets for the mule-driven omnibuses, carriages, and coaches that transported people to public events. Theaters opened, and European opera companies toured the major cities. Local newspapers hired writers like Machado de Assis to report on events, and education for the professions became more popular. Instead of running the fazendas, the sons of wealthy landowners chose to study medicine and law in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo—or even at universities in Europe. There they learned the latest European ideas and trends.
The development of the middle class
The mass migration of Portuguese, Germans, Italians, and other Europeans to Brazil contributed to the nation’s modernization by helping to develop an urban middle class. Many immigrants remained in the Brazilian cities, became artisans, civil servants, clerks, and merchants, and married black or mulatto women.
This growing middle class was an unstable alternative to the fixed hierarchy of slaves and masters. In Dom Casmurro Bento’s neighbors, the family of his sweetheart Capitu, belong to this emerging class. Her father, Padua, is a civil servant who owns his house because of a winning lottery ticket. Lacking monetary resources, Padua turned to Dona Gloria for help after a disastrous flood. His precarious social and economic position, a product of luck and favor, reflects the thin line trod by many in the emerging middle class. A huge social gap existed between the upper class and the middle class. A mid-century marriage across class lines, such as that between Capitu and Bento, was exceptional.
In the second half of the century, the rising numbers of graduates from medical and law schools formed a much more solid middle class that gradually replaced the aristocrats as the most powerful segment of society. Some members of the new urban middle class came from the ranks of the aristocracy, but most were the sons and grandsons of merchants and hard-working immigrants. Upon graduation they took positions of prominence in the professional fields, government, and commerce, and became the social and economic equals of the upper class.
The crucial difference between this powerful new male-led middle-class and the upper-class patriarchs of the fazendas was the former’s ready acceptance of contemporary European lifestyles and ideas. The educated middle class participated fully in urban social life, which increasingly imitated that of contemporary European cities. Yet the march of progress conflicted with Brazil’s colonial heritage and hierarchy, especially in the contradiction between the slave economy and the principles of European liberalism. The educated middle class formed “a creative element of dissonance” that forced Brazil to break away from its past (Freyre, Mansions, p. 361).
The end of the old system
Although the increasingly powerful men of the middle class disagreed with many beliefs and attitudes of the backwoods aristocracy, they recognized the established power of the aristocrats and could not reject them out of hand. Instead there was a peaceful co-existence between the commercial, liberal, urban middle class and the aristocracy, and throughout the 1850s and 1860s, a “convenient sinking of political differences” (Gledson, p. 92). Brazil’s booming economy made this co-existence sweeter, encouraging everyone to ignore the disparity between the nation’s slave economy and the liberals’ belief in abolition and wage-earning.
The increasing power of the educated middle class finally led to the passage of the Law of the Free Womb in 1871, which declared that all children born of slaves after September 28 of that year would be free. The law was followed in 1888 by the emancipation of all slaves, which cost slave owners dearly. The old aristocrats lost much of their economic power, since they were not compensated for the emancipation. Immigrant wage earners were now the norm in the workplace.
The rise to prominence of the middle class and of institutions other than the fazenda—such as banks, schools, offices, and factories—chipped away at the authority of the patriarchal mansion and changed the social climate of the Brazilian cities. Women took advantage of new opportunities to escape the confines of the home and attend the theater, opera, concerts, and balls. Although marriage and child-bearing still defined their lives, women gained greater choice in selecting a partner. It became possible for them to marry across class and race lines, and an increasing number of young people married for love, rather than to fulfill a familial obligation. Songs of the era proclaimed the importance of love, regardless of one’s class and family. The lyrics of a popular song state quite plainly “Quero casar com a mulher do meu amor” (I want to marry the girl I love), conveying a defiance of tradition that mirrored the times (Freyre, Order and Progress, p. 72).
Gradual changes in the hierarchies of gender, class, economics, and race had an effect on politics in Brazil in 1889. The ailing Emperor had lost the confidence and support of liberal and conservative factions alike. Although he promoted the modernization of Brazil, his reign had never taken the lead in reaching for the future. The powerful middle class grew impatient with his lackluster regime, and a number of prominent figures declared themselves in favor of a republic. Conservatives also chafed under the Emperor because they felt betrayed by the abolition of slavery without compensation. The army disdained the bookish Emperor for his apparent contempt of their ranks. When the Emperor’s health faltered and he did not recover after his medical treatment in Europe, all parties grew concerned about the succession. Neither the Princess Isabel nor her French husband were attractive successors. There was not yet a popular cry to replace the empire with a new form of government, but the minority took the reins. Even though they lacked popular civilian support, the armed forces fomented a coup on September 7, 1889, which sent Emperor Dom Pedro II into exile and created the Republic of Brazil. Backed by republican politicians and citizens, General Deodoro da Fonseca proclaimed the country’s new status. He proceeded to serve as the first president, while civilian politicians took posts as ministers. They replaced the imperial arms on the Brazilian flag with the slogan “Order and Progress,” a motto that formalized the change in the nation’s direction.
Reaction to the new regime was tepid. Although people no longer supported the Emperor and thought his removal was beneficial, they were not enthusiastic about the government that replaced him. There was no clean break from the past. Many landowners retained their money and privileges, and many aristocrats, counselors, and dignitaries continued to serve in the political posts that they had held under the monarchy. This old guard formed the new government along with college-educated republicans and military officers who had also begun their political careers under the Emperor. They retained many of the outward appearances of the imperial government. In fact, the new Republic exercised a more authoritarian hold over the nation than the Emperor had. Despite the new regime, the transformation of Brazilian society and its institutions continued at a languid pace.
In the early 1890s a period of economic boom and bust known as the Encilhamento ended in a shock wave of severe inflation amid charges of government corruption and culpability. “Speculation became the order of the day. [Brazilians succumbed to] that particular whirlwind of speculation, bogus companies, and unsound financial practices” that makes a nation economically unstable (Burns, pp. 241-42). The crisis rocked the country and undermined the new regime’s credibility. The narrator of Dom Casmurro, who is writing his memoirs during the 1890s, gives a few astringent asides about the value of money, which most likely refer to this inflationary period.
The first civilian president, Prudente de Morais, took the reins in 1894. “With him, the words “Ordern e Progresso” [began] to take on a concrete meaning” (Freyre, Order and Progress, p. xlvi). Under his leadership, the new Republic strove to increase the scope and pace of modernization and to attract further European immigration. Beginning in 1888 industrialization quickened as machines replaced slaves on a large scale. Freed mulattos and blacks learned to operate and service machinery, skills that allowed some to join the middle stratum. Class rather than race became the major criterion of prestige, and a somewhat more egalitarian society emerged in the cities. Technological, political, cultural, and economic changes came to fruition in Brazil during the first decade of the Republic.
The novel opens in the late 1890s in the Engenho Novo suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. The first-person narrator, Bento Santiago, begins by recounting the manner in which he received the nickname “Dom Casmurro,” and the reason that he has used the name as the title of his memoirs. Now a retired lawyer, he states that in this book, Dom Casmurro, he will tell the real story of his life, a story that begins in 1857, when he is 15. Bento, or Dom Casmurro, frequently interrupts his linear narrative: he addresses his readers directly, comments (often ironically) on the events of the past, interjects other stories from the past, forgets the details of certain incidents, and discusses his present situation in the 1890s. These interruptions are ubiquitous and difficult at times to separate from the plot, which makes Dom Casmurro a sly narrator. This idea is crucial to understanding the novel. His tale begins as 15-year-old Bento is eavesdropping on a conversation between the adults at his widowed mother’s home: “that was when my life began… now I was to begin my Opera” (Machado de Assis, Dom Casmurro, p. 17). In invoking the idea of an “opera” the narrator speaks on two levels: he both marks the start of the major events of his life, and implies that he will be orchestrating his description of the events to follow. Rather than simply narrating the events of his memoir, Dom Casmurro will arrange and stage them for the reader.
The story focuses first on the adolescent Bento, his widowed mother, Dona Gloria, and the dependent of the family, Jose Dias. Jose Dias reminds Dona Gloria that after the death of her first child, she had promised God that if she had a male child, he would join the priesthood. José Dias further warns the mother that Bento and Ca-pitu, the 14-year-old girl next door, have fallen in love. If Bento does not go the seminary soon, there will be trouble. Jose Dias makes his warning with the apparent intention of thwarting a potential marriage, and thus maintaining the family’s equilibrium and his own place within it. Dona Gloria, a doting mother, had been ignoring her promise to God, but now resolves to send the boy for holy orders.
OPERA AND THEATER IN RIO DE JANEIRO
The theme of the opera runs throughout Dom Casmurro, Machado appears to have had in mind the nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner’s idea of the opera as a complete work of art, combining scenery, words, music, and theater under the control of a single creative genius. Through his control of the plot, characters, tone, and interpretation, the narrator of Dom Casmurro stages an opera in which “appearance is often the whole of truth”(Dom Casmurro, p. 21). The author Machado plays a second, or grand, opera in counterpoint to the narrator’s, in which the narrator becomes as much a part of the novel as the plot and characters. In truth, opera was very popular in nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities, as well as in Europe. The Emperor himself supported touring Italian opera companies. In a passage that Machado de Assis cut from the final manuscript of Dom Casmurro, he wrote of the Italian opera that “more than one singer had sent our tenderhearted, enthusiastic populace wild” (Dom Casmurro, p. xvii). The city’s enthusiasm for opera and other theatrical arts from Europe contrasts with the dark and insular world of Bento’s boyhood home. His staunchly traditional mother disapproves of the theater, and refuses to allow him to attend until Jose Dias, a dependent of the family, cajoles her with the plea that “the theater [is] a school of manners” (Dom Casmurro, p. 39). Thereafter, Bento becomes a theatergoer, continuing to attend performances throughout his life.
Upon overhearing Jose’s revelation, Bento has a sexual awakening and realizes that he does love Capitu. He visits her, and, after some flirting, reveals what he has overheard. Capitu helps Bento figure out how to keep himself out of the seminary, and recommends that, instead, he attend law school in Sao Paulo—Brazil’s premier school of advanced education. She also proposes that Bento enlist Jose Dias’s help. As a fellow seeker of faver from the Santiagos—her father is in debted to Dona Gloria—Capitu astutely knows that Jose Dias will agree to help. If he wishes to retain his position in the family, he has no choice but to follow the direct orders of the young heir.
However, Jose Dias cannot dissuade Dona Gloria from her pledge. Even though she prefers not to have her beloved son leave her, she does not want to forsake her oath to God. Father Cabral, a family friend, proposes a compromise—if Bento does not develop a desire to join the priesthood after two years in the seminary, he should leave before taking his final vows. Jose Dias promises to have Bento out in just one year. Capitu and Bento secretly pledge to marry each other.
In the seminary Bento becomes close friends with Escobar, another youth uninterested in the priesthood. Escobar is passionate about commerce. His new friend accompanies Bento to dinner at his mother’s home during the weekend furloughs that provide Bento and Capitu with extra opportunities to see each other. After Escobar’s departure from his first visit, Capitu speaks from her window to Bento standing in the street. A young gallant on horseback passes by and exchanges looks with Capitu, a common way of flirting. Jealousy overwhelms Bento—“Just try to reason with a burning heart like mine at that moment!” (Dom Casmurro, p. 136). This is not his first attack of jealousy and Bento despairs, but the next day Capitu consoles him: there is nothing between her and the horseman. She loves only Bento.
Bento confides the secret of his love affair to Escobar, and their friendship deepens. It is Escobar who finds the solution to the young couple’s dilemma: Dona Gloria can provide for an orphan to enter the priesthood in place of her son. This frees Bento to leave the seminary and attend law school in Sao Paulo for the next five years. Meanwhile, Capitu becomes Dona Gloria’s assistant and confidante, while Escobar pursues his love of business.
At the completion of his studies, Bento weds Capitu with the approval of his mother. The couple establish a home where they frequently entertain Escobar, his wife Sancha (Capitu’s friend), and later their daughter. Bento serves as a lawyer in a prestigious firm. After a number of disappointing, childless years, Capitu gives birth to a son, Ezequiel. The boy is remarkable for his ability to imitate others, especially Escobar.
The final part of the novel concerns the tragedies that befall the group. First, Escobar drowns while swimming in the ocean. At the funeral Bento is overwhelmed by jealousy at the sight of his wife’s parting gaze at the dead man: “There was a moment when Capitu’s eyes fixed on the body, like those of the widow though without her tears or cries, but large and wide open, like the waves on the sea out there, as if she wanted to swallow up that morning’s swimmer” (Dom Casmurro, p. 212). He can barely contain his rage, but it subsides the next day.
Over the following years Bento’s jealousy returns, and he comes gradually to convince himself that Ezequiel is actually Escobar’s son, that, in Ezequiel, “Escobar began to rise from his tomb” (Dom Casmurro, p. 222). No one else questions the boy’s paternity, but Bento thinks that the boy’s resemblance to Escobar is incontrovertible evidence of his wife’s adultery, plain to all. Bento finds the sight of the boy repulsive, and he withdraws from his wife and family life. He sends Ezequiel to boarding school and later considers poisoning himself and then the boy. Tormented, Bento finally confronts Capitu with the charge of adultery. She denies it, exclaiming, “Not even the dead escape your jealousy!” (Dom Casmurro, p. 231).
Unmoved, Bento takes his wife and Ezequiel to Switzerland, and provides a place for them there. Bento never sees Capitu again. Although he visits Europe repeatedly, he does not see his family; the trips are merely a pretext, allowing him to pretend to relatives and friends that he has visited them. After the death of his mother and Jose Dias, Bento has his mother’s mansion torn down, and a replica built in the recently developed suburbs of Engenho Novo. Relocation to these suburbs, a less exclusive area than his mother’s neighborhood, suggests that he lacks the wealth of his parents.
One day Ezequiel unexpectedly visits—at which point Bento casually inserts into the narrative the fact that Capitu has already died. To Bento’s eye, Ezequiel, now a young man, is the spitting image of Escobar. Bento provides the young man with funds for an archaeological expedition to Greece, Palestine, and Egypt while thinking, “I’d rather have paid for a dose of leprosy” (Dom Casmurro, p. 242). He is relieved when he hears that Ezequiel died of typhoid in Palestine and has been buried outside Jerusalem. “In spite of everything,” he notes, “I dined well and went to the theater” (Dom Casmurro, p. 243). He ends his narration by commenting in a voice full of irony that his frequent female guests visit him as they would a retrospective exhibition. He prays that he has successfully proven to the reader that the deceit of his wife had already been part of her character as a teenager, “like the fruit inside its rind” (Dom Casmurro, p. 244).
What’s in a name?
Bento Santiago begins his narrative by describing the circumstances in which a young poet from his neighborhood gave him the sobriquet “Dom Casmurro.” Although casmurro, an adjective, means “stubborn, headstrong,” the narrator admonishes his readers: “Don’t look it up in the dictionaries. In this case, Casmurro doesn’t have the meaning they give, but the one the common people give it, of a quiet person who keeps himself to himself (Dom Casmurro, p. 4). The title Dom—used for nobility—associates Bento with the defunct aristocracy, but he quickly explains, “The Dom was ironic, to accuse me of aristocratic pretensions” (Dom Casmurro, p. 4). By this disarmingly bold adjustment of the truth, the narrator attempts to deceive gullible readers. He freely admits that the title characterizes his memoirs—“I couldn’t find a better title for my narrative” (Dom Casmurro, p. 4). The narrator’s words convey the message that he controls the book and enjoys tweaking the opinion of others with his wit and bile. The words also convey a contrasting message from the author: that the narrator is self-serving and not to be trusted.
Bento is the last remaining member of an aristocratic family. He retains the arch-conservative views of his mid-century upbringing in the staunchly traditional milieu of his mother’s home, even though he now lives in the post-Revolution era, when the old aristocratic plantation-owning ruling class has fallen from power. His aim in writing his memoirs—as it was in reconstructing his mother’s house—is “to tie the two ends of my life together” (Dom Casmurro, p. 5). Just as he builds a replica of his mother’s old home on an 1890s foundation, so too his caustic, jaded narrative reconstructs the innocent experiences of his past.
Although the narrator does not directly refer to the changes in the politics, culture, and society of Brazil during his life, those changes are crucial to understanding Dom Casmurro. Bento as a youth fantasizes that the Emperor himself will rescue him from the seminary by convincing his mother to let him become a doctor. Similar delusions of haughty self-absorption sustain him as Dom Casmurro in a society without emperors. That he lives in such a different world helps to explain his neighbor’s sardonic nickname.
This disinterest in the modernization of Brazil, John Gledson argues, “is something which Machado regarded as typical of his [aristocratic] generation” (Gledson, p. 92). Dom Casmurro, a sophisticated, urban lawyer, is part of the generation that ignored the contradictions of adopting the values and lifestyles of European liberalism while maintaining a slave economy. As a narrator Dom Casmurro is pointedly disinterested in and contemptuous of the new society in which he appears to be “a retrospective exhibition,” a reflection of days past (Dom Casmurro, p. 243).
THE MEANING OF CASMURRO
Although Portuguese dictionaries at the time of Dom Cas-murro’ s printing defined casmurro as “stubborn and headstrong,” today the definition has expanded to include the one Bento prefers: “a quiet person who keeps himself to himself (Dom Casmurro, p, 4). This addition to the lexicon reflects the importance of Dom Casmurro to Brazilian culture.
The narrative is filled with little details of how society is changing around Dom Casmurro, leaving him a man at odds with and denying the world around him. For example, in his youth, Bento and his mother rode in a carriage through the streets of Rio. Driven by a slave, the carriage, he explains, with its curtain and spy-holes, was a thing of the past. In the narrator’s mind the carriage is a metaphor for his “mother’s secluded life” and her “faithfulness to old habits, old ways, old ideas, old fashions” (Dom Casmurro, p. 155). His love for this outmoded carriage indicates his own devotion to the bygone times. In the 1890s the carriage is a thing of the past, and Bento must join his neighbors on the plebeian train. In the 1890s the narrator can enter the privileged, aristocratic world only through his memory and narration.
Capitu or Desdemona?
Critics have pointed out that Dom Casmurro is heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s Othello, which centers on an unjustifiably jealous husband who murders his wife. Knowledge of this influence helps explain the complexities of Bento’s self-delusion. Long before Bento suspects that Ezequiel is the son of Escobar, he has begun to interpret Capitu’s behavior as evidence of her duplicity. Incidents that as a youth he saw innocently, he now reinterprets according to his conviction about her betrayal. For example, when Capitu’s father’s voice interrupts a kiss, Bento recounts her abrupt change in demeanor from sweetheart to naive daughter: “In the midst of a crisis which left me tongue-tied, she expressed herself as innocently as could be” (Dom Casmurro, p. 75). Her ability to calm her emotions becomes evidence of her guile to the jaded narrator, even though the young Bento could feel only his own embarrassment. According to the old Dom Casmurro, Capitu was a femme fatale with “undertow eyes” that drew him in, hatching plans and deceptions that the innocent young Bento would never have been able to concoct on his own (Dom Casmurro, p. 63).
The subtle and ironic voice of the narrator attempts to persuade readers to share his judgement of Capitu. But has Capitu actually deceived and betrayed Bento? Or is she, like Othello’s Des-demona, condemned by the mistaken jealousy of her husband? Bento’s jealousy of Escobar begins at the man’s funeral, when Bento sees the “undertow eyes” that “[want] to swallow up” Escobar, as Capitu takes her last look at the body (Dom Casmurro, p. 212). Doubts about Capitu’s fidelity swell nine months after the funeral when he gazes at Escobar’s face in Ezequiel’s visage. Earlier insinuations about Capitu and Escobar come from the vantage of the narrator in the 1890s, who looks back on his memories of what had actually been pleasant times. Although Capitu herself mentions that the child resembles Escobar, no one besides Bento openly shares his conviction regarding the boy’s paternity. Since the narrator is known to present his own opinions as facts, it is impossible to gauge objectively whether Capitu has betrayed her spouse, or whether Bento’s jealousy has blinded him and turned him into a cruel man.
Outside Bento’s mind, in the grand opera that is Machado’s novel, what does the story reveal? Capitu does appear to have been a social climber, but that does not mean she betrayed or did not love Bento. By marrying into the Santiago family, she clearly moved up the ladder, gaining tremendously in social prestige and financial security. So she did have more of a motive than love to keep Bento from the seminary. Dom Casmurro insinuates that her parents encouraged the young couple, by allowing them time alone with the intent of seeing their daughter married. The social maneuvering he perceives as he looks back on their love affair becomes another example of Capitu’s guilt that justifies his abandoning her; she did not love him, but only used him. Yet in the novel she expresses little but love for Bento. Even her letters from exile, he concedes, were “submissive, without hatred, affectionate maybe… and towards the end full of longing” (Dom Casmurro, p. 235). It is in his mind that Capitu’s love is doubted; there is little hard evidence.
The novel illustrates social tensions of the day, between men and women, between the old aristocratic upper class and the up-and-coming middle class. Capitu has no recourse to prevent Bento from abandoning her. As a patriarchal husband, he can send her halfway across the world, and pursue other women upon his return to Brazil. His class may have lost strength, but he retains the ability to execute the will of an all-powerful patriarch on Capitu, whether or not she deserves it. Like Capitu, Escobar comes from a milieu different from Bento’s. The son of a merchant, he joins the booming commerce of nineteenth-century Brazil. The friendship ends with Escobar’s death in 1871, the same year that the Law of the Free Womb was passed. The death of the friendship can be seen as the end of the compromise between the aristocracy and commercial interests in Brazil. The betrayal felt by Dom Casmurro might, from this perspective, reflect the political, economic, and social power lost by the aristocrats to the urban middle class.
Sources and literary context
Dom Casmurro does not fit easily with other Brazilian literature written around the same time. In his novels and literary criticism, Machado opposed naturalism, the literary movement that dominated Brazilian letters in the late nineteenth century. Naturalist literature featured the negative consequences of change, the overpowering nature of the sexual drive, and the way that heredity and environment determine the way a person acts.
Machado’s works stand out also against the nativist concern in Brazilian literature that strove to portray the national character, since they did not focus on the tradition’s main components: local color, the countryside of the “true” Brazil, and heroic tales of Indians and settlers. Instead, the characters of Dom Casmurro display an internal type of Brazilianness; they inhabit the changing urban Brazil rather than describe it. The novel reflects certain realistic details of nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro but creates an independent reality, a separate fictive world, which is the most distinguishing feature between it and other novels of the time.
Although there has been speculation that Machado’s own life was another inspiration for Dom Casmurro, the author himself would have vigorously denied any connection. Machado deliberately destroyed his personal correspondence and refused to discuss his books in an attempt to hinder any biographical-literary speculation. He wanted Dom Casmurro and his other novels to be read for their literary value alone. Rather than seeing his life as a source for his work, Machado believed that his work was his life.
Almost all the Brazilian critics received Dom Casmurro favorably upon its publication, but none appeared ready for its many innovations and subtleties, particularly the ironic tone of the narrator. In his review of the novel for Jornal do Commercio, Jose Verissimo wrote that the narrator was a simple, intelligent man who had been deluded by Capitu, and complained that Machado had returned to the “detached intellectual attitude” of his earlier novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Braz Cubas (Verissimo in Caldwell, Machado de Assis, p. 153).
Since its publication, the novel’s acclaim within Brazil and abroad has risen enormously. The American critic Helen Caldwell was the first to question the truth of Capitu’s betrayal, and to recognize the important distinction between narrator and author: “[T]he aim of the fictional author of Dom Casmurro and that of the real author are diametrically opposed” (Caldwell, The Brazilian Othello, p. 160). While the narrator (or fictional author) portrays himself as a man deceived, the real author depicts Dom Casmurro as a vain curmudgeon out of place in a new society. Machado compounds this author-narrator complexity through the saracastic tone of the 1890s narrator, which overlays his description of his innocent teenage courtship. Keith Ellis praised the novel for its “distinctive use of the first person narrative,” which became a central concern of modernist novels in the twentieth century (Ellis, p. 439). A writer ahead of his time, Machado was recognized even by his contemporaries as the greatest living Brazilian novelist.
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_____. Machado de Assis: The Brazilian Master and His Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
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_____. Order and Progress: Brazil from Monarchy to Republic. Ed. and trans. Rod W. Horton. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.
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