The Maias

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The Maias

by Eça de Queirós


A novel set in Lisbon, Portugal, from the early 1820s to 1887; published in Portuguese (as Os Maias) in 1888, in English in 1965.


Against a backdrop of political, social, and moral turmoil, the novel depicts the declining fortune of the Maia family over three generations. The story focuses particularly on an incestuous romance in the last of these generations.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

José Maria Eça de Queirós (1845-1900) has been acclaimed Portugal’s greatest nineteenth-century novelist and one of the most outstanding writers of the Portuguese language of all time. Born out of wedlock in Póvoa de Varzim, a small fishing town in northern Portugal, Eça de Queirós never lived with his parents (who would officially acknowledge him only at the time of his own wedding in 1886) but was raised by his father’s family until he attended a boarding school in Oporto, Portugal’s second largest city. Subsequently he studied law at the prestigious Coimbra University, where he became deeply interested in literature and intrigued by sociopolitical reformist ideas. He practiced law briefly, then traveled to the Orient, and finally pursued a diplomatic career that resulted in his living abroad in Cuba, England, and France until his death in 1900. While still a student in Portugal, Eça worked closely with his French teacher and lifelong friend Ramalho Ortigão and produced a monthly journal As Farpas (The Barbs) —the first platform for his ironic strain of realism. Continuing to spice his writing with a honed social satire, Eça published his first novel, The Sin of Father Amaro, in 1875. Its depiction of a relationship between a priest and a parishioner impressed readers as a vivid attack on the power of the Church in Portugal, winning the novelist immediate attention. His next novel, Cousin Bazilio (1878), portrays a perverse love affair between first cousins in a context of marital boredom that lambastes bourgeois society of the time; and his subsequent novel, The Relic (1887), like wise focuses on the degeneracy of bourgeois society. In The Maias, Eça’s fourth and longest novel, written over a space of eight years, Eça portrays a Portuguese aristocratic family in a way that mirrors the global and domestic fate of Portugal itself at the time.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

From global to domestic decline

The action of The Maias spans the 1820s to the late 1880s, a tumultuous period for Portugal at both an international and domestic level. On an international front, this period was deeply marked by several major political and economic defeats that the public attributed to government incompetence and viewed as shameful acts of failure. The

French invasion was followed by British governance and commercial domination in Portugal, and Brazil’s declaration of independence from Portugal in 1822 showed Portugal to be a country at the mercy of foreign policies and interests, unable to defend its own rights. Once it became apparent that Brazil’s independence would not be reversed, Portugal sought other avenues for economic prosperity in order to regain public confidence and repair its badly damaged national pride. In the 1830s the prospect of an African empire came to the forefront of political and national debate. The imperial ambition consisted of linking the large Portuguese colonies in the eastern and western regions of Africa, Mozambique and Angola, respectively, by annexing present-day Zimbabwe. A general European scramble for control of African territories ensued as the century wore on, which, until the mid-1880s, followed no general policy: “Each country with colonial ambitions … tried to subdue as much territory as it could, either in ‘vacant’ lands or at the expense of others. Historical rights, true or false, were often invoked to justify an act of conquest or its counter-defense” (Marques, p. 107). This was certainly Portugal’s argument at first, given its lack of manpower and economic and military resources. However, the historical rights argument was superseded by new policies enacted at the first European partition conference held in Berlin in 1884-85, which decided that occupation in African territory would henceforth require effective occupation and governance. In order to secure the inland territories between Mozambique and Angola, Portugal would have to dispatch troops and civil officials to those areas, an impossible mission due to the lack of funds and manpower. Yet the Portuguese did not concede defeat immediately, attempting to organize expeditions and to effectively occupy these inland African territories. An ultimatum from England in 1890, however, accompanied by the threat of war, ultimately forced the Portuguese to abandon this imperial dream, once again humiliating them at home.

On a domestic level, the years encompassed in The Maias were marked by revolutions, unstable rule, civil war, and over 40 different governments. The successive three Maia generations (Afonso, Pedro, and Carlos) correspond respectively to the constitutional struggle and the liberal war years of the 1820s and 1830s, the era of liberal idealization and political limbo of the 1840s, and the Age of Regeneration (also known as the birth of Portuguese capitalism) that began in 1851. In the 1820s several major events dominated Portuguese politics, beginning in the first year of the decade with the Oporto revolution that led to the end of British occupation (an occupation resulting from the Napoleonic invasion of 1807, whereby the French ruled Lisbon for several months before being driven out by the British). The Oporto revolution was mainly concerned with reestablishing Portuguese independence and with the growth of social and economic liberalism. One of the momentous events of the first decade of the revolt was the drafting and proclamation of a democratic constitution in 1821-22.

During the French and British occupations of the early part of the nineteenth century, King John VI and the rest of the Portuguese royal family had fled to Brazil. In 1821, after the Oporto revolution, King John returned to Lisbon, leaving Brazil in the hands of his son, Pedro I. Brazil declared independence from Portugal in 1822, designating the son, Pedro, its emperor. After King John VI’s death in 1826 Pedro supported his young daughter’s claim to the Portuguese throne and nominated his brother Miguel as acting regent. Miguel, however, claimed the crown for himself, sparking a conflict that split the country into strident camps. The monarchists (or absolutists) led by Prince Miguel squared off against Pedro’s liberals, who proposed a compromise constitution “charter” modeled on the Brazilian constitution.

This fratricidal conflict ensnares the characters in The Maias, pitting Afonso da Maia, a liberal, against his father, Caetano, a Miguelist supporter. Yet, when Afonso stands in need of financial aid, he turns to his father and a reconciliation ensues, a symbolic reference to the corrosion of liberal ideals by materialistic aspirations in internal politics in Portugal. Afonso’s experience in the novel is reflective of real-life developments in another respect too. The actual conflicts between monarchists and liberals lasted intermittently for 31 years, during which opponents to those in power sought exile abroad, as Afonso does in the novel when he escapes twice to England.

Two political figures worthy of mention stand out in this agitated political context: Antonio Bernardo da Costa Cabral (governor of Lisbon and twice leader of a right-wing reform government, 1842-46, 1849-51) and Field Marshal João Carlos Saldanha (a leading military figure in the Portuguese Revolution, and appointed premier in 1846-48 and 1851-56). Costa Cabral (whom Pedro da Maia teaches his parrot to insult in the novel) sought to carry out a modernizing regime based on urban and commercial interests, emphasizing order through a regime of repression and violence. In 1846 he was evicted from office due to the unpopularity of his measures, in particular a taxation increase and a prohibition against burials inside churches that provoked an uprising known as “Maria by the Fountain,” because of the significant participation of women in the incident. Following a period of failed governments, Costa Cabral returned to power, first in alliance with Saldanha (from 1847 to 1849) and then reassuming total control as prime minister (in mid-1849). Stepping down from government, Saldanha became the leader of the opposition and revolted once again in 1851; supported by a military uprising in Oporto, he managed to evict Costa Cabral from office, ushering in the Age of Regeneration in Portugal.

Like Costa Cabral, Saldanha aimed to modernize the country. However, his government’s measures earned popular support by representing a strong yet flexible coalition of moderates, rightists, and leftists. Saldanha chose highly skilled personalities as part of his cabinet, among them the poet and writer Almeida Garrett (Secretary of Foreign Affairs 1852; see Travels in My Homeland , also in WLAIT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times) and the politician Fontes Pereira de Melo (Secretary of Finance, Secretary of Public Works, and Prime Minister 1851-86), whose well-developed policies for modernization drastically improved Portugal’s transportation and communication systems. The Regeneration entailed dramatic public works projects, including the establishment of a modern postal system, the electric telegraph, an expanded road system, and the railway system.

In opposition to the Regenerators rose a new group, the Historicals, later known as the Progressives, who rotated power peacefully with the Regenerators for almost 50 years. “Both were loose coalitions based on personal loyalties and local interests. Liberal and conservative labels were worn lightly. Ideological differences were of far less importance than personal or factional ones. When a party in government found it difficult to discharge its offices, the monarch [switched allegiance] and offered power to the other” (Gallagher, p. 15). Thus, from 1851 until the fall of the monarchy in 1910, governments ruled as long as possible, then transferred the reins of power to the opposition.

The beginning of the 1870s saw tumult in European politics on the whole, with the unification of Germany and Italy, the Franco-Prussian war, civil strife in France itself, and a new phase of political evolution in Portugal. As politics abroad alarmed the government at home, groups of intellectuals began to organize themselves around common ideals. It was apparent that Portugal was entering a phase wherein newly formed political parties boasting separate ideologies would emerge. In The Maias, the 1870s correspond to a new lease on life for the ancestral Lisbon home of the Maia family, who will relocate to Lisbon in 1875.

Portugal in general was contending with a considerable economic obstacle at the time. By the 1880s it was evident that the country was lagging behind much of western Europe in industrial development. Memories of the glorious imperial expansion era prompted the country to look nostalgically to the successes and heroes of the past, a tendency that came to the forefront in 1880 with the tercentennial celebration of the death of Camóes, Portugal’s most patriotic poet (see The Lusiads , also in WLAJT 5: Spanish and Portuguese Literatures and Their Times). “Portugal underwent a veritable paroxysm of civic pride and messianic hopes for a new day—the tercentenary year marking the death of Camóes himself. Civic enthusiasm and patriotic fervor were at their height” (Coleman, p. 187). The need to regain an optimistic outlook as a nation and to rekindle hopes for a brighter future was manifested in the erection of an obelisk on the main Lisbon boulevard in 1886, commemorating the Portuguese restoration of independence from Spain in 1640. These events are paralleled in The Maias by the apparent success of Carlos da Maia, followed by a tragic coming to terms with reality. In real-life, sobering events put the brakes on national optimism. At the end of the 1880s Portugal entered a period of crisis tied to developments such as a decline in wine exports and in the textile industry. During these crucial years, historians, politicians, economists, and writers debated the future of the nation and the potential avenues that would raise Portugal from underdevelopment and economic and cultural dependence to a modernized state. This is the period portrayed at the conclusion of The Maias.

Portugal in relation to Europe—an identity crisis

In part because of its geographic location, Portugal has remained culturally and economically on the periphery of Europe. Turning predominantly towards the sea, Portugal established an identity for itself in relation to far-off lands rather than the neighboring states of continental Europe. But in the nineteenth century, given the decline of its seaborne empire, Portugal began to measure itself in relation to the rest of Europe. People modified their habits, adopting various European ways. On a cultural and political level, Portugal became dominated by French influences.

The import of French literature and ideas was quickened by an extraordinary revolution in the intellectual life of Portugal: the opening of the first railway line between Paris and Coimbra in 1864, facilitating the introduction of packing-cases of books. The writers of the time desired more fully to join Europe in order to “escape from the stifling provincialism into which Portuguese literature had sunk in the mid-nineteenth century” (Hemmings, p. 313). The consensus among the leading intellectuals of the day was that Portugal needed to undergo a national revival of its own and that for this to happen social conditions and education would have to improve in ways that could be culled from modernized nations abroad. While such a revival was a longer-term process than blindly imitating foreign trends, the intellectuals deemed it a far better alternative. Writers in Eça de Queirós’s generation perceived their mission to be two-fold: to rescue Portugal from an identity crisis accompanied by general malaise and backwardness, on the one hand, and to connect Portugal intellectually to the rest of Europe, on the other.

With this aim in mind, Eça and several of his contemporaries rallied together as the “Generation of 1870.” The group had four leading members: a poet (Antero de Quental), an essayist (Teofilo Braga), a historian (Oliveira Martins), and a novelist (Eça de Queirós himself). The monthly satirical journal As Farpas provided a forum through which the group disseminated its ideas throughout Portugal from 1871 to 1883. It furthermore planned a series of lectures in the Casino at Lisbon (commonly referred to as the “Casino Lectures,” or “Democratic conferences”). Motivated by the desire to react against Portuguese indifference, by acute sensitivity to Portuguese decadence, and by opposition towards the government in power, the group sought to discuss new avenues for Portugal. It focused its sights on social reform, questions of national identity, and religious and educational issues. However, the initiative was short-lived; perceived as a daring social and political attack on the existing order, the lectures were cut short by the government, which put a stop to them in 1871. In The Maias it is this ambiance that Eça vividly and ironically portrays. His is a country in danger of losing its national identity, being invaded by French cultural artifacts, even as it longs to re-embrace a more authentic Portugal. In Eça’s view, the elite are bringing on the danger by their blind, unthinking adoption of French habits, as reflected in a satirical passage from the concluding pages of his narrative.

This simple shape of boot explained the whole of contemporary Portugal.… Having cast off her old character, the wretched country had decided to turn modern; but having no originality or energy or ability to create a character of its own, it had ordered models from abroad—models of ideas and trousers and customs, laws, art, culinary and otherwise.

(Eça de Queirós, The Maias, p. 621)

Even the French political scene had repercussions in Portugal, where developments were closely followed. The Maias illustrates this preoccupation through discussions centered on the Second and Third French Republics and the establishment of the Commune (a 72-day period in 1871 when radicals organized Paris into a self-governing city, wanting France to change into a decentralized federation of free municipal units). The novel’s discussions center also on the real-life French political leader Leon Gambetta. Gam-betta, one of the founders of the Third Republic, has been viewed as “a symbol of a corrupted ideal—the hero of the Commune turned into a demagogic windbag, a bourgeois politician only interested in the support of the proletariat to the extent that he can exploit it” (Gledson, p. 152). Recent histories actually describe him as a more laudable sort. “He was [in fact] a man who liked to remark, that ‘politics is the art of the possible,’ and who accepted the label ‘Opportunist’ to illustrate his belief that each advance must await the opportune moment” (Wright, p. 224). Whatever the true nature of his character, for Eça, Gambetta embodies both the ideal of republican rule and the forces that undermine it.

The Lisbon elite at the end of the nineteenth century

The Maias can be set apart from Eça’s previous novels in that it portrays the lifestyle of the elite social class of Lisbon rather than the rural middle class and bourgeois middle class depicted in The Sin of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio, respectively. The pastimes of Lisbon’s upper class revolved around activities that predominantly enabled its members to “see and to be seen.” Within Lisbon, one of the most popular activities was promenading along Lisbon’s central enclosed avenue, the Passeio Publico (“the public walkway”), on Thursdays and Sundays. As in other social venues, appearance was everything, and wearing the latest fashion (ranging from a certain color of gloves to cashmere jackets or the distinguishing eye-glass) or boasting a spotless carriage (usually the open, backwards-facing dog-cart) were distinct indicators of social status. Following the promenades, it was customary for the elite to attend private evening parties, usually accompanied by musical entertainment or dancing, where drinking gin and imported wine was the norm in contrast to the domestically produced Oporto wine, the variety consumed by the lower social classes.

For a trip away from the capital, it was considered most prestigious to spend the day in Sintra, a bucolic haven situated 40 miles northwest of Lisbon in a beautiful scenic environment. Traditionally, since the reign of King John I (1385-1433), the royal family took up its summer residence in Sintra, conferring social elegance to a town flanked by lush mountains, abounding in palaces, and overlooked by a majestic Moorish castle. The chic hotels and restaurants were tailor-made for special romantic getaways of nineteenth-century aristocrats.

Another forum for Lisbon’s elite were evenings at Lisbon’s Sao Carlos theater and opera house, founded in 1793. It provided prestigious entertainment and a privileged mingling area for Lisbon high society, with the royal family making appearances. These evenings at the opera or theater were often considered the indoor equivalent of the Passeio Publico; the spectacle happened mostly amongst the audience, whose members would eye one another and only secondarily the stage.


The protagonist of The Maias brings back a far less innocent souvenir from France than fashionable clothing. His female companion, Maria Eduarda, it turns out, was a courtesan. The nineteenth century was one of accelerated urban development, which makes it unsurprising that there was an imbalance in the ratio of men to women in the capital cities such as Paris, France, where Castro Gomes meets Maria Eduarda, “a woman who would have offered herself naked to any man in Paris who had a thousand francs in his pocket!” (The Maias, p. 427). Highclass Paris prostitutes catered largely to foreign aristocrats. For foreigners, or provincials visiting the capital for a few days or weeks, such female company became something of a rite, promoted by conditions of the era. Other features of the era were newly created wealth tied to industry, declining Church influence, and growing sensitivity to individual liberties and free-thinking, all of which helped make the last three decades of the nineteenth century a golden age in prostitution.

In 1874 the creation of the hippodrome, a horse-show arena in Lisbon, offered yet another alternative for social gatherings, constituting a valiant effort at cosmopolitanism, even at the price of foreign imitation. At first it was thought that the horse races would replace to a degree the traditional Portuguese bullfight; however, proving not to be very popular, the hippodrome was torn down in 1883.

Other than engaging in such local activities, being well traveled set Lisbon’s elite apart from” the less privileged classes. From Lisbon the most popular destinations were the metropolises of England, France, and Italy, where the elite would spend months and even years. As vividly portrayed in The Maias, most prominently in relation to France and England, the knowledge of foreign cultures, languages, and customs was an important part of the education of the upper class, which was often achieved or assisted by governesses and private teachers from abroad.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Most of The Maias is situated within a relatively short time frame, the 14 months that fall between the end of 1875 and the beginning of 1877. In the autumn of 1875 Afonso da Maia, the patriarch of the Maia dynasty, leaves his rural home in the Douro hills to install himself in Lisbon in a family home known as Ramalhete. Ramalhete has been empty for years, under the stewardship of old Vilaça, who believed that the “walls of Ramalhete had always been fatal to the Maias” (The Maias, p. 9). Afonso, who at his age loved the peace and quiet of his country abode, nonetheless saw fit to live in the capital to better receive his grandson, Carlos Ed-uardo da Maia, after his graduation. The grandson, accustomed to metropolitan life and driven by dreams of his future as a doctor and medical researcher, would most likely not want to live in the small Douro town of Santa Olávia.

At this point in the novel, the storyline moves back in time to establish the main events affecting the Maia family since the beginning of the nineteenth century. The flashback brings Afonso da Maia’s family from the period of the Portuguese liberal revolutions of the 1820s to the end of 1875 and the beginning of the main plot.

Belonging to the generation that entered adulthood before the liberal revolution of 1820 and the proclamation of the Constitution in 1822, Afonso da Maia enthusiastically supports the liberal cause. His enthusiasm persists though his father, Caetano da Maia, expels him from the family home of Benfica to the family estate in the Douro, regarding his son as “the most ferocious Jacobin in Portugal” (The Maias, p. 14). After a brief stay in Santa Olavia, Afonso seeks his father’s blessing before departing to England where his liberal fervor dwindles and he becomes engrossed in English society of the day. When his father dies suddenly, Afonso returns to Lisbon for the funeral and meets his bride-to-be, Doña Maria Eduarda Runa, whom he soon marries. A son is born, Pedro da Maia. Disillusioned by the state of affairs in Lisbon under the reign of Dom Miguel, Afonso sets off for England once again, this time with his wife and child. They remain there until his wife, ill and failing rapidly, begs him to return to Lisbon, where she dies.

Pedro, Afonso’s only son, resembles his mother both physically and temperamentally. A small, nervous child, “he developed slowly, without curiosity, indifferent to toys, animals, flowers and books. No strong desire ever seemed to move that half-somnolent and passive soul” (The Maias, p. 20). A grown Pedro drowns his mother’s memory in brothels and taverns before burying himself in religion. He later becomes involved with Maria Monforte, daughter of a rich Azorean who had formerly been the captain of a brig that had transported cargoes of slaves to Brazil, Havana, and New Orleans. Needless to say this amorous relationship does not meet with Afonso da Maia’s approval, so Pedro and Maria elope. They depart for Italy and Paris, and upon their return to Lisbon, a gulf still divides Pedro and his father, even after Pedro’s daughter Maria Eduarda and his son Carlos Eduardo are born. In the end, Pedro seems to have endured his father’s wrath all for naught, for his marriage collapses. Maria Monforte flees with an Italian prince, Tancredo, taking her daughter with her, whereupon Pedro commits suicide, leaving his son, Carlos, to his father. Afonso, grieved by the misfortune and dishonor that has befallen the Maia family, dedicates himself to his grandson’s upbringing and education. Carlos da Maia receives an English education, very different from the one Afonso had seen his wife insist upon giving their son Pedro. Carlos goes on to study medicine in Coimbra and, after traveling throughout Europe, returns to Lisbon to live with his grandfather. It is the end of 1875.

Afonso da Maia and Carlos are elite members of Lisbon society. Afonso is full of hopes for his grandson’s future, and Carlos is driven by ideas and projects. He arrives in Lisbon to establish his medical practice, open a laboratory for scientific investigation, and write medical articles and a book, or, as he states, to “embark on a career that will be a glory to the nation!” (The Maias, p. 87). Yet nothing comes of his aspirations. Carlos instead indulges in a life of luxury and pleasure, entailing soirees at Ramalhete, evenings at the S. Carlos opera, dinners at the Hotel Central, and a love affair with the “enticing … enchantingly well-made” Countess de Gouvarinho, the wife of a diplomat, who turns out to be insatiable and far too demanding (The Maias, p. 122). He, in short, becomes lost in the mediocre high society of Lisbon. Then one day, in the Hotel Central, Carlos spots a beautiful woman, Maria Eduarda, the wife of a rich Brazilian, Castro Gomes. He grows infatuated with this unknown beauty and attends her sick child. Later, through the sickness of Miss Sarah, the Gomes’s governess, Carlos appears again. First as the family doctor, then as a friend, he becomes a regular of the household’s inner circle while Castro Gomes is absent in Brazil.

Carlos and Madame Castro Gomes have an affair, provoking bitter jealousy in Carlos’s peer, the condescending Damaso Salcede, and frustration in Carlos’s mistress Countess de Gouvar-inho. Maria Eduarda, who fully reciprocates Carlos’s love, agrees to spend the summer in the “Hideaway,” a country house in the outskirts of Lisbon, at Olivais, where Carlos arranges for her to live. However, Castro Gomes soon dispels Carlos’s misconceptions about Maria Eduarda. He returns to Portugal and, having been informed of Carlos’s relationship with Maria Eduarda in an anonymous letter written by Damaso, informs Carlos that Maria Eduarda is not his wife, but “just a woman [he] paid” (The Maias, p. 426). This episode leaves Carlos dumbfounded, but facing the truth of Maria Eduarda’s past ends up consolidating their relationship. They discuss marriage. “Now they would not have to hide a guilty love but enjoy instead the tranquility of a legitimate happiness” (The Maias, p. 445).

Carlos and Maria Eduarda’s destinies are once again upset when Guimarães, one of Damaso’s uncles, comes on the scene. A Parisian reporter, Guimarães had formerly known Carlos da Maia’s mother, Maria Monforte, in Paris. It is Guimarães who reveals to Carlos’s close friend João da Eça that Maria Eduarda is Carlos da Maia’s sister, leaving Eça speechless, “staring at him in horror and a terrible pallor covering his face” as he faced “the monstrous certainty that Carlos was the lover of his [own] sister!” (The Maias, pp. 545, 549). Eça entrusts the Maia steward Vilaça with truth-shattering documents to prove this, then reveals the whole story to Carlos and his grandfather Afonso. Carlos intends to end his relationship with Maria Eduarda, whom he now knows is his sister, but, unable to resist her, he ends up consciously committing incest, albeit with feelings of “physical nausea” (The Maias, p. 589). “[Carlos] was human and weak, and unable to stop being swept along by that violent impulse of love and desire which drove him before it like a tempest!” (The Maias, p. 587). Afonso da Maia, informed of his grandchildren’s fraternal incest, dies of grief. Eça then leaves the Maria Monforte documents with Maria Eduarda, along with part of the inheritance that, as a Maia, is rightfully hers. Maria Eduarda leaves for Paris, and Carlos sets off with Eça for America and Japan. It is the beginning of 1877.

A year later Ega appears in Lisbon. Carlos, still badly shaken, has installed himself in Paris “in a magnificent apartment in the Champs-Élysees, living the life of an artistic Renaissance prince” (The Maias, p. 609). Ten years later he encounters Eça in Lisbon, and informs him that Maria Eduarda will be married to a Frenchman in Orleans. Eça and Carlos take stock of the past and the present, discussing Portugal and her ills. Laughing at their former dreams and illusions and the Portuguese attempts at modernization, they conclude that all efforts, both on a personal and collective level, are ultimately pointless. Short of a miracle or a catastrophe, in The Maias —as in the majority of Eça’s work—there is no concrete solution to this deep-felt state of despair, which translates into the author’s own pessimism towards Portugal at the end of the nineteenth century.

Alongside the main protagonists of the novel, The Maias presents a crowded gallery of characters, representative figures of Portugal of that time. Included are the following: the Count de Gouvarinho, a narrow-minded, rhetorical politician; Miss Sarah, the Gomes’s English governess, who lives a double life of English Puritanism by day and libertine ardors after dark; the Jewish banker Cohen, whose wife Rachel is João da Eça’s lover and the great romantic passion of his life; the ultra-romantic poet Alencar; the sad Eu-sebiozinho, product of a religious, provincial education, considered a prodigy child in his youth; the shallow, solemn and ridiculous Finnish minister Steinbroken; the corrupt journalist Palma Cavalhao; and Cruges, the unappreciated maestro and intimate of the Maia circle. Set apart from this group is João da Eça, Carlos’s confident, whose councils and witty comments accompany Carlos through the years. João da Eça’s impertinent denunciation of the ills of the country, and the mediocrity of the men that represent it, is commonly thought to be a reflection of the novelist’s own views.

Incest in nineteenth-century Portugal

The incest motif can be traced back to classical Greek literature (for example, Sophocles’ Oedipus) or the Bible. In The Maias the theme of incest brings a tragic dimension to the novel in the Oedipus tradition, projecting passions and problems that cannot be easily solved or destroyed. The societal taboo involves two innocent siblings who did not foresee their blood relationship. Ultimately, once their consanguinity is revealed, Carlos’s incapacity to refrain from committing incest transforms what was ignorance to a conscious perversion and then a deadly act: Carlos degrades himself, defiles his sister, and provokes his grandfather’s death. Yet, other than Afonso’s sudden death, neither Carlos nor Maria Eduarda are punished, but go their separate ways to live


The death of the Portuguese King Sebastian in the battle of Alcácer Quibir (1578) in northern Africa opened the way to Iberian union: from 1580 to 1640 Spain and Portugal were united for the first time under the same sovereign, King Philip ll of Spain. After the restoration of Portuguese independence in 1640, Spain was considered the dangerous neighbor and remained a permanent, though often dormant, threat to Portugal’s nationhood. During the nineteenth century the discussion of an Iberian union resurfaced following the unifications of Italy in 1859-60 and Germany in 1871 and during the years 1873-75 when the Spanish Crown was in limbo until it was solidified under Alfonso XII. “For many Portuguese intellectuals, including a great number of Republicans, the dream of an Iberian Union had a strong appeal, as a remedy for the backwardness of both countries and the dawn of a new era for the united ‘Spaniards.’ They defended of course a sort of federation with Spain (or even a confederation of several states dismembered from Spain) which might preserve Portugal’s cultural and political identity” (Marques, pp. 71-72). This debate comes to the forefront in The Maias as the protagonists discuss possible solutions to Portugal’s current state of degeneracy. “On that night Eça was incorrigible, and now he uttered another enormity. ‘Portugal doesn’t need reform, Cohen! What Portugal needs is a Spanish invasion!’ Alencar, who was an old-fashioned patriot, became indignant.… But Eça was speaking in earnestness and was full of reason. Obviously, he said, invasion would not involve absolute loss of independence” (The Maias, p. 150).

comfortable lives of idle luxury, not as outcasts but as well-accepted members of society. This pseudo-happy ending minimizes the tragic impact that the incest has upon the protagonists. However, though there is apparently little damage on the surface, pessimism undergirds the close of the novel, a pessimism tied to the unpredictable forces to which humanity is subject. There is a disheartening focus on the incapacity of humankind to control its destiny, exemplified by the destruction of happiness once thought untouchable.

In Eça de Queirós’s work, the incest theme is also present in two other novels that merit mention, Cousin Bazilio and A Tragédia da Rua das Flores (The Tragedy of the Street of Flowers). The matrimonial state was considered the cornerstone of respectable middle-class society in nineteenth-century Europe, and the bourgeoisie’s deepest anxieties were roused by anything that could constitute a threat to its stability. Posing such a threat, incest exposes these anxieties. Eça’s vivid depiction of incestuous relationships likewise points to the degeneration of the family in late-nineteenth-century Portuguese society, a degeneration that points to the decreasing influence of the Church, the greater mobility of the population due to improved infrastructures, and the increasing role of women in society, who were no longer as strictly confined to the stereotype of wife and mother. Finally, incest points to the sterility of nineteenth-century Portuguese life. Carlos, the last man of the Maia lineage, personifies the decline of society, the loss of dignity, hope, and identity. Just as the Maia clan will have no future issue, Eça foresees dismal days for the future of Portugal if it remains on its present course. His vision is one of decadence and corruption, with emphasis on the repulsive aspects of life, in the interest of change. To this end, the Portuguese aristocracy provides an ideal backdrop for his condemnation of a society guided not by reason but by sentimental impulses, and of a country in desperate need of social, institutional, and educational reforms.


Within Portuguese literature, The Maias is strongly acclaimed as one of the great masterpieces of the nineteenth century, a testament of realism artistically projecting customs of Portuguese society interspersed with ultra-sentimental episodes. Though Eça de Queirós traveled extensively and lived many years outside Portugal, he never lost contact with his homeland and it remains central to the great majority of his work.

The circumstances of Eça’s childhood and adolescence are frequently thought to have deeply influenced his writing. Though he is nowadays most commonly known by his first surname, “Eça,” which was his mother’s maiden name, his birth certificate reads “mother unknown.” Moreover Eça’s mother refused for over 40 years to acknowledge her first-born son, even after she married Eça de Queirós’s father, with whom she had four more children. Eça’s work rarely features a stable, happy family unit. What predominates are abnormal relationships (or the lack of relationships) between parents and children. As previously mentioned, the incest motif is representative of this lack of normality. In his youth, Eça apparently wanted to marry a cousin with whom he was raised, and he probably projects this desire into his work.

Resemblances between The Maias and Eça’s adulthood can also be conjectured. At the end of the novel, Carlos da Maia and João da Ega discuss lost illusions. Eça himself, along with the other members of the “Generation 1870,” wanted Portugal to experience a profound transformation but hope waned and dreams were abandoned. Perceiving all efforts to be in vain, the “Generation 1870” formed the group “Vencidos da vida” (“Life’s defeated”) at the end of 1887 and the beginning of 1888, when The Maias was first published.

As noted, the protagonist João da Ega is often referred to as the author incarnate, and in relation to one episode in particular the parallel certainly seems to ring true. While Eça de Queirós was serving as District Administrator in Leiria, Portugal (1870-71), he was invited on February 21, 1871, Shrove Tuesday, to a masked ball at the house of the Barons de Salgueiro. Towards the end of the evening, the Administrator was caught committing a social taboo in one of the darker rooms of the home by kissing an already attached woman very similar to Rachel Cohen in the novel. As a result, Eça was told to leave the masked ball. In The Maias it is João da Eça, dressed as Mephistopheles, who is shown the door at a masked ball given in honor of Rachel Cohen’s birthday, an episode that explicitly recalls that of Eça’s life.

Literary context

In the early-to-mid nineteenth century European writers developed a new literary genre, realism, in response to the one in vogue at the time, Romanticism. Offended by the disguised eroticism of idealized Romantic literature and the corrupting effect of such fiction on the bored, poorly educated women of their class, realist writers sought to portray characters illustrative of social trends and institutions, aiming primarily “to tell the truth.” Though writing mainly in England and then France, Eça de Queirós distinguished himself as the foremost realist writer of Portuguese literature in his time. His intent was to faithfully depict modern life, with all its negative attributes, so it would serve as a guidepost to future action.

Eça’s mission was to give literary expression to customs of Portuguese society, and to general human passions. He dreamed of creating his own “Comedy of Human Life,” a project paralleling the French writer Honore de Balzac’s lifetime endeavor, The Human Comedy (some 90 novels about human life and society). In Eça’s case, the plan was for the series to consist of intertwined novels representing aspects of nineteenth-century Portuguese society. Though he never completed the project, his works would indeed capture slices of Portuguese society. The Maias was appropriately subtitled “Episodes of romantic life.” Though the subtitle is lost in the English translations, it was highly important to Eça, who insisted his editor print it on the cover of the novel. In The Maias the slice of life depicted is that of the waning aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie, both corrupted by material ideals and driven by ambitions of power.


In order to use the past as a means of education, we want to produce a photograph, I almost said a caricature of the old bourgeois world, sentimental, devoted, catholic, explorative, aristocratic.… An art that has this aim is a powerful aid of revolutionary science.

(Queirós, Uma Campanha Alegre, p. 68; trans. K. Bishop Sanchez)

Eça wrote at a time when realism’s literary offspring, naturalism, was widespread in Europe. Naturalism aimed to faithfully represent reality with emphasis on the accidental, physiological dimensions of characters, who were viewed either as more or as less fortunate victims of their heredity and environment. Eça introduced naturalism into Portugal, a genre adopted by writers of the 1880s and 1890s, such as Abel Botelho and Jçlio Lourenço Pinto. Eça’s earlier novels are considered his most naturalist works. Traces of naturalism surface in The Maias, but his absence from Portugal prevented direct “scientific” observation of the social milieu, and Eça moved progressively away from a naturalist style of writing.


When the novel came out in 1888 it was immediately the focus of critical attention, mostly due to the incestuous relationship that Eça so blatantly developed. The novel was both praised and condemned, as portrayed by several key articles published in the newspapers of the time. An article by Fialho de Almeida, one of Eça’s contemporaries and himself a writer of short stories and chronicles, was published in the Portuguese newspaper Reporter on July 20, 1888, vividly attacking the violence of some of The Maias ’s portraits, referring to all the men as grotesque rogues and the women as shameless. He accuses Eça de Queirós of having produced a book that could well have been written by a foreigner unfamiliar with Portuguese society, merely judging Portuguese life from the outside through hotel scenes, newspaper articles, social gatherings, etc. This article merited a prompt reply from Eça in a letter written from Bristol dated August 8. Later that same month the literary critic Mariano Pina wrote a summary of the book’s impact on contemporary readers and critics for the newspaper A Ilustracao. According to this article, the main faults were the length of the novel, some 990 pages that could well have been condensed into 300 pages, and the impression that several of the characters were repeats from Eça’s former novels. Following this critical synthesis, Mariano Pina defends the novel, deserving the following response from Eça “Excellent article on The Maias, full of good humor and irony. Je vous en serre la main?” (Matos, p. 573). The year following the novel’s publication, the Portuguese poet Bulháo Pato, indignant after recognizing himself in the character of the ultra-romantic poet Alencar, published a flamboyant satire against Eça (“O Grande Maia”), to which Eça responded with characteristic irony. But Eça had his champions too. Mariano Pina asserted that The Maias once again proves Eça on par with the great European modernists: contrary to the opinion of several critics, its portrayal of Portuguese society is far from monotonous or shortsighted and Eça’s unparalleled style combined with his command of the Portuguese language contributes to the novel’s strength.

—Kathryn Bishop Sanchez

For More Information

Birmingham, David. A Concise History of Portugal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Coleman, Alexander. Eça de Queirós and European Realism. New York University Press: New York, 1980.

Corbin, Alain. Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1850. Trans. Alan Sheridan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Demetz, Peter. “Ega de Querios as a Literary Critic.” Comparative Literature 19 (1967): 289-307.

Gallagher, Tom. Portugal, a Twentieth-Century Interpretation. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1983.

Givens, Terryl L. “Os Maias: Incest, Dilettantes, and the Ethics of Realism.” Hispanofila 100 (1990): 53-65.

Gledson, John. “The Meanings of Os Maias: The Role of Gambetta.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies. Special Homage Volume (1992): (147-54).

Hemmings, F. W. J. ed. The Age of Realism. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1974.

Macedo, Helder. “Introduction.” The Maias, by Eça de Queirós. J. M. Dent & Sons: London, 1986.

Marques, A. H. de Oliveira. History of Portugal. 2d ed. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

Matos, A. Campos, ed. Dicionãrio de Eça de Queiróz. 2d ed. Lisboa: Caminho, 1993.

Overton, Bill. “Church and State: Eça de Queirós, Alas, Galdós.” In The Novel of Female Adultery: Love and Gender in Continental European Fiction, 1830-1900. Macmillan: London, 1996.

Queirós, Eça de. The Maias. Trans. Patricia Mc-Gowan Pinheiro and Ann Stevens. London: Penguin Books, 1998.

_____. Uma Campanha Alegre. Porto: Lello & Irmão, 1966.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. New York: Norton, 1987.