Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria (1839–1908)

views updated

Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria (1839–1908)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (b. 21 June 1839; d. 29 September 1908), the greatest figure in Brazilian letters. Machado was a novelist, short-story writer, poet, essayist, playwright, and literary critic; fiction, however, gave him eminence in Brazilian literature. A contemporary of the romantics, who to some extent influenced him in his formative years, Machado developed a highly personal style.

Machado was born in a slum of Rio de Janeiro, the son of a black house painter and a Portuguese woman from the Azores Islands. At an early age, he became an orphan and began to earn his own living. He did not receive much formal education. He worked as a typesetter, proofreader, editor, and staff writer. In 1869 he married Carolina, the sister of his friend the Portuguese poet Faustino Xavier de Novais. At thirty-five he joined government service.

When still very young, Machado entered the field of letters, writing poetry, plays, opera librettos, short stories, newspaper articles, and translations. Active in artistic and intellectual circles, he was, however, a man of restrained habits who spent thirty-five years as a civil servant. Some of his biographers believe that the bureaucratic routine permitted Machado to devote himself completely to letters. Others view his hardships as having benefited his literature. Machado's anxieties regarding his race and social origin, the epilepsy that tortured him, and his stuttering all had powerful influences on his art. Literature was his relief.

Machado's first volume of poems, Crisálidas (Chrysalis), was published in 1864. Other publications followed: Falenas (Moth, 1870), Contos fluminenses (Tales of Rio de Janeiro, 1870), his first novel, Ressurreição (Resurrection, 1871), Histórias da meianoite (Midnight Tales, 1873), A mão e a luva (The Hand and the Glove, 1874), Americanas (American Poems, 1875), Helena (1876), and Iaiá Garcia (1878).

In spite of this substantial accomplishment, Machado had not yet defined his identity, still searching for his own creative principles. At thirty-nine, sick and exhausted, he was granted a leave of absence, which he spent in the resort city of Nova Friburgo, near Rio. This period marks a turning point in his work. After his return to Rio he began one of the masterpieces that characterize the second part of his writing career, Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881; Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1952).

This rise to greatness has been explained in different ways. Most modern critics, however, interpret his achievement as the consequence of a long desire for perfection and as the result of the struggle between romantic ideals and Machado's creative intuition with which they conflicted. There was not a sudden change between the two phases; the first phase prepared the second. It was a maturation process. After 1875 the technique of his short stories improved. As a result, the collections published after 1880 include several true masterpieces, such as "Missa do galo" (Midnight Mass), "Noite de almirante" (An Admiral's Evening), "A causa secreta" (The Secret Cause), "Uns braços" (A Pair of Arms), "O alienista" (The Alienist), "O enfermeiro" (The Male Nurse), "A cartomante" (The Fortune Teller), and "O espelho" (The Mirror).

Machado's first novel of the second phase, Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, is a fictional autobiography written by the dead hero. Starting with his death and funeral, the novel represents a complete break with the literary conventions of the time and Brazilian literature, which allowed an exploration of themes not utilized before. With psychological acuity, the author observes people in trivial, cynical, and egocentric conditions. He also portrays Brazilian society at the end of the empire.

The next novel is Quincas Borba (1891; Quincas Borba: Philosopher or Dog?, 1954). Rubião, a teacher from Minas Gerais, inherits from Quincas Borba a huge amount of money and a crazy philosophy. As he leaves for Rio, Rubião meets a pair of crooks, Christiano Palha and his beautiful wife, Sofia, with whom he falls in love. The couple, who become Rubião's close friends, slowly steal everything from him. Many other people belonging to a marginal and mobile society are involved. Rubião ends up poor and insane. The conclusion proclaims universal indifference in the face of human suffering and the abandonment of man by supernatural forces.

Machado reached the highest expression of his art in Dom Casmurro (1890; Dom Casmurro, 1971). This masterpiece is artistically superior to his other works; novelistic elements such as narrative structure, composition of characters, and psychological analysis are employed with incomparable genius. Bento Santiago wanted to join the two ends of life and restore youth in old age. For this purpose he had a replica of his childhood home constructed. Because the plan did not work, he decided to write about his past. Bento and Capitu are in love, but he must become a priest to comply with his mother's vow. Capitu's plotting convinces Bento's mother to allow him to leave the seminary. Bento receives his law degree, and finally the couple are united in a blissful marriage. They have only one child. Escobar, Bento's best friend, has married Capitu's best friend, and the two couples live in perfect friendship. As Escobar dies, Bento becomes convinced that his friend and Capitu have committed adultery. Bento tells his own story, which seems smooth on the surface. Implicitly, however, this is a tragic tale of evil, hatred, betrayal, and jealousy. This content, along with the outstanding artistic qualities of the book, makes Dom Casmurro Machado's most powerful work.

In Esaú e Jacó (1904; Esau and Jacob, 1965), Machado adds a new dimension to his treatment of symbolic and mythical elements. The novel contains more political allegories than do any of his other works. Two identical twins, Pedro and Paulo, differ from each other in every respect but their love for the same girl, Flora. The political atmosphere of the newly proclaimed Brazilian Republic is incorporated into the narrative.

Also in 1904, Machado was overwhelmed by the death of his wife. He wrote a very touching poem, "À Carolina," which appeared as an introduction to a new collection of short stories, Relíquias da casa velha (Relics of an Old House, 1906). Memorial de Aires (1908; Counselor Ayres' Memoirs, 1972), his last novel, is a love story and reminiscence of his life with Carolina. Very ill and frail, Machado died the same year.

Machado de Assis was a powerful writer who is intellectually and emotionally impressive. His writing is predominantly psychological, but the best of his fiction combines the social, philosophical, and historical dimensions with the psychological to make a whole. His extraordinary ability to evoke the past is one of the secrets of his success. His stylistic traits include a simple, exact, and clear syntax and short, discontinuous sentences without rhetorical effects. Metaphor and simile are evident in his writing, but conciseness marks his style and is responsible for its greatness. The underlining philosophy is a pessimistic one that envisions humankind as solitary, depraved, and lost. Compatible with his tragic view of life, his themes embrace death, insanity, cruelty, ingratitude, disillusion, and hate. Machado found refuge for his nihilism in beauty. His heaven is the aesthetic ideal.

Additional collections of short stories included Papéis avulsos (1882), Histórias sem data (1884), Várias histórias (1896), Páginas recolhidas (1899), and Outras relíquias (1910). Many of these stories have been published in English. A three-volume collection of his complete works is Obra completa (1959).

See alsoLiterature: Brazilxml .


Helen Caldwell, The Brazilian Othello of Machado de Assis: A Study of "Dom Casmurro" (1960).

Helen Caldwell, Machado de Assis (1970).

Afrânio Coutinho, Machado de Assis na literatura brasileira (1960).

Afrânio Coutinho, "Machado de Assis," in Latin American Writers, edited by Carlos A. Solé and Maria Isabel Abreu, vol. 1 (1989), pp. 253-268.

John Gledson, The Deceptive Realism of Machado de Assis: A Dissenting Interpretation of "Dom Casmurro" (1984).

Claude Hulet, "Machado de Assis," in Brazilian Literature, edited by Claude Hulet, vol. 2 (1974), pp. 95-118.

Maria Luísa Nunes, The Craft of an Absolute Winner: Characterization and Narratology in the Novels of Machado de Assis (1983).

Marta Peixoto, "Aires as Narrator and Aires as Character in Esaú e Jacó," in Luso-Brazilian Review (Summer 1980): 79-92.

Additional Bibliography

Chalhoub, Sidney. Machado de Assis, historiador. São Paulo, Brazil: Companhia das Letras, 2003.

Fuentes, Carlos. Machado de la Mancha. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2001.

Graham, Richard, ed. Machado de Assis: Reflections on a Brazilian Master Writer. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.

                                  Maria Isabel Abreu

About this article

Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria (1839–1908)

Updated About content Print Article