Assis, Joaquim Maria Machado de

views updated Jun 27 2018

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

BORN: 1839, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

DIED: 1908, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


GENRE: Fiction, poetry, plays, essays

Epitaph of a Small Winner (1881)
Quincas Borba (1891)
Dom Casmurro (1899)


Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is thought by many to be Brazil's greatest writer. Although he wrote in many genres, he achieved his greatest literary successes in the novel and short-story forms. A complex blend of psychological realism and symbolism, Machado's fiction is marked by pessimism, sardonic wit, an innovative use of irony, and an ambiguous narrative technique.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Success and a Change in Perspective Machado was born in Rio de Janeiro on June 21, 1839, to a Portuguese mother who died when he was ten; his father was a house painter. Machado had epilepsy and a speech impediment, which are thought to have made him very self-conscious. Machado did not receive a formal education, and most of his learning occurred while working as a printer's apprentice. During these years, Machado began writing poems and stories. When Machado began

working as a proofreader at a bookstore, he met many prominent literary figures. These contacts helped Machado get his first works published, which launched his career as a writer. He was an early success, and his work was widely acclaimed by the time he was twenty-five.

In 1860 he entered the civil service, to which he dedicated himself, and he eventually attained the directorship of the Ministry of Agriculture. Over the next decade, while working for the ministry, Machado wrote mostly poetry and several comedies—drama being his first literary passion—before he gave more serious attention to narrative fiction.

In 1879 Machado suffered a serious illness, and the long convalescence allowed him time to change his worldview. When he returned to writing, he began a novel radically different from anything he had done before. His previous works of sentimental Romanticism gave way to mordant irony. His first novel in this new period was Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881), translated under the title of Epitaph of a Small Winner in 1952. The book's narrator is deceased and is writing his memoirs as a man who has already arrived on the other side. Ten years later, Machado wrote Quincas Borba (translated under the title of Philosopher or Dog?), and his next novel, Dom Casmurro, was written in 1900.

The Brazilian Academy of Letters The formation of the Brazilian Academy of Letters began after the proclamation of the republic in 1889. The best writers in Brazil, including Machado, were brought together to contribute to Revista Brasileira (Brazilian Review). Within this group, there was a movement to establish an academy along the lines of the famous Academie française. When the academy was officially constituted in 1897, Machado was named the first president in perpetuity, a title he held until his death on September 29, 1908.

Works in Literary Context

Among Latin American fiction writers of the nineteenth century, Machado is without peer. He emerged from undistinguished biographical and literary origins with a brilliant and subtle voice that set him apart from his contemporaries and pointed the way to the Ibero-American literary boom of the twentieth century. Though Machado's first novels and poetry were characteristically Romantic, the maturing writer became more contemporary. Machado could see that Romanticism was past its prime, but he had problems with the values of realism and naturalism so prevalent among the Brazilian writers of his day. Instead, he sought narrative models from the eighteenth century, especially those involving a meandering, free-associative style.

According to the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, Machado's adherence to the early traditions of the novel made him the legitimate heir of Miguel de Cervantes. Paradoxically, Machado's devotion to past models made him an important precursor of future trends. Through self-reference, irony, the rejection of strict verisimilitude, and an emphasis on the relativity of events and actions, the Brazilian author, more than any other Latin American of his century, cleared ground for Jorge Luis Borges and his successors.

Short Fiction with a Broad Range Having a much broader range than his novels, Machado's short fiction is concerned with the destructiveness of time, the nature of madness, the isolation of the individual, conflicts between self-love and love for others, and human inadequacy. Often humorous, Machado's stories portray the thoughts and feelings, rather than the actions, of characters who often exemplify Brazilian social types. Machado's stories deal satirically with cultural institutions and contemporary social conditions. His short fiction favors self-revealing dialogue and monologue rather than description or narration.

Unlike his novels, very few of Machado's more than two hundred short stories have been translated into English, but those that have represent his most accomplished works in the genre. These include “The Psychiatrist,” which struggles with the twin questions of who is insane and how one can tell; “Alexandrian Tale,” a satirical attack on the tendency to use science to cure human problems; “The Companion,” one of Machado's most anthologized tales, in which a man hired to care for a

cantankerous old invalid is driven to murder him instead; and “Midnight Mass,” regarded by most as his best single story, which relates the events surrounding an ambiguous love affair between the young narrator and a married woman.

Works in Critical Context

Some critics have interpreted Machado's narrative art as being part of the realistic trend in literature, but most have identified his work with the modern movement, linking the style and technique of his fiction to writers such as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann. Other scholars have examined Machado's works as an influence in the construction of a postcolonial Brazilian national identity and for indications of the author's stand on racism and civil rights. As international readers have slowly discovered his fiction through translation, most agree that Machado's narrative art is the work of a largely unrecognized genius.

Outside his native Brazil, Machado's short stories are relatively unknown and consequently have received little international critical attention. This lack of recognition is attributed in part to the fact that Portuguese is not widely accepted as a literary language, and Brazilian literature, in particular, makes up a small part of the traditional Western canon. According to Earl Fitz, “[H]ad [Machado] written in French, German, or English, for example, [he] would be as well-known today as Flaubert, Goethe, or Shakespeare.”

Epitaph of a Small Winner Machado's best-known novel, Epitaph of a Small Winner, is often cited as the first modern novel of the Western Hemisphere. It appeared in installments in 1880 and was published as a book the following year. With the early installments it became clear that Machado was finished with his previous models of sentimental Romanticism; irony, wit, and pessimism had become his new mediums. The unobtrusive third-person narrators of the past were replaced by a brash and impudent first-person narrator, interacting aggressively with the reader.

Machado's readers, including his close friends, apparently had a hard time knowing what to make of Epitaph of a Small Winner. Capistrano de Abreu went so far as to ask if it was a novel at all. Noteworthy is Machado's response to that question, which appears in the preface to the third edition of the novel. Rather than directly answering the question, Machado quotes his narrator, saying that it would seem to be a novel to some but not to others. Responding to remarks about the book's pessimism, Machado again quotes his narrator, who characterizes his own account as pessimistic. Machado ends by saying, “I will not say more, so as not to become involved in the analysis of a dead man, who painted himself and others in the way that to him seemed most fitting.” Machado seems to have tried to draw an important line here. He wanted his readers not to look to him, the author, for the “real meaning” of the book. The book has a narrator, and the opinions expressed in the book are his. As that narrator himself says on the opening page, “The work in itself is everything.”

Dom Casmurro Many critics feels that Dom Casmurro is the finest novel ever written in both Americas. The history of the reception of Dom Casmurro has involved diametrically opposed ways of reading the novel. The narrative is told by a digressive and eccentric first-person narrator, Bento Santiago, who has grown old and now finds himself alone and uneasy. He vows to recover the happier moments of his youth by writing a memoir. The narrator thus recounts the adolescent romance he experienced with Capitu, the girl next door. The sweet love story turns into bitterness, however, when after several years of marriage and the birth of a son, Bento becomes convinced that Capitu has been unfaithful to him with his friend from the seminary.


Machado's famous contemporaries include:

José de Alencar (1829–1877): Brazilian novelist whose works advocated a fiercely independent nationalism.

Giosuè Carducci (1835–1907): Italian poet widely considered one of Italy's greatest writers.

Rosalia de Castro (1837–1885): Galician poet who is considered to be one of Spain's best poets.

Thomas Hardy (1840–1928): English writer whose poetry was part of the naturalist movement.

Claude Monet (1840–1926): French artist who was one of the founders of impressionism.

Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898): French poet and critic who influenced the development of Dadaism.

Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900): English composer best known for his collaborations with William Gilbert on comic light operas.

Published reviews and analyses show that for generations readers accepted the narrator's perspective at face value, assuming that Capitu was guilty of adultery. The tide of opinion began to change in 1960, with Helen Caldwell's The Brazilian Othello of Machado de Assis, in which she claims that Capitu is the innocent victim of her husband's jealous and domineering mind. That view gained favor, particularly since Roberto Schwarz's “discovery” of Caldwell in Duas meninas (1997), and it seems to have become the prevailing opinion in Brazil. Both the reading of Capitu as adulteress and the reading of her as innocent victim,

however, are partial and unbalanced. The more critically acute reading is that Machado wrote an ambiguous novel in which the truth of Santiago's claims against his wife cannot possibly be determined with any degree of confidence.

Responses to Literature

  1. Critics disagree about whether Machado's works should be considered realist or modernist. Which designation seems more appropriate? Does Machado defy categorization? Why or why not?
  2. Read one of Machado's short stories and discuss the reliability of the narrator. Discuss how the narrator's reliability affects the reader's interpretation of the plot.
  3. Machado is noted for creating uncertainty and ambiguity in his novels and short stories. Write a story that re-creates this kind of ambiguity.
  4. Machado avoided commenting on the “real meaning” of his books. He asserted instead that “the work in itself is everything.” Write an essay supporting this assertion.


Machado's novels reject the attempt at an objective, truthful narrative in favor of exploring the relativity of events and actions. Here are some other works that take a similar approach:

Don Quixote (1605, 1615), a novel by Miguel de Cervantes. This two-volume novel, often seen as a satire of orthodoxy, truth, and veracity, follows the largely imagined adventures of a farcical knight.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. This short horror story recounts the murder of an elderly man, but the reader is unsure whether the account is true or the ranting of a madman.

The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell (1959), a novel by Jorge Amado. This novel shows how two different groups of people compete over the memory of a single, unusual man who has recently died.

Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003), a novel by Elliot Perlman. This novel tells the story of a peculiar crime from the perspective of seven different characters who were directly or indirectly involved.



Baptista, Abel Barros. Em nome do apelo do nome: duas interrogaçôes sobre Machado de Assis. Lisbon: Litoral, 1991.

Caldwell, Helen. The Brazilian Othello of Machado de Assis: A Study of Dom Casmurro. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960.

Carvalho Filho, Aloysio de. O processo penal de Capitu. San Salvador: Regina, 1958.

Dixon, Paul B. Reversible Readings: Ambiguity in Four Modern Latin American Novels. University, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1985.

Fitz, Earl E. Machado de Assis. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria

views updated Jun 08 2018

MACHADO de ASSIS, Joaquim Maria

Nationality: Brazilian. Born: Rio de Janeiro, 21 June 1839. Family: Married Carolina de Novaes in 1869 (died 1904). Career: Journalist from age 15: proofreader, typesetter, writer, and editor; editor and columnist, Diário do Rio de Janeiro, and A Semana Ilustrada, 1860-75; clerk, then director of accounting division, Ministry of Agriculture, Commerce, and Public Works, 1874-1908. Member: Conservatório Dramático Brasileiro, 1862-64; Academia Brasileira de Letras (founding president), 1897-1908. Order of the Rose, 1888. Died: 29 September 1908.



Obras completas. 31 vols., 1937-42.

Obra completa, edited by Afrânio Coutinho. 3 vols., 1959-62; edited by Henrique de Campos, with others, 31 vols., 1955.

Short Stories

Contos fluminenses. 1872.

Histórias da Meia-Noite. 1873.

Papéis avulsos. 1882.

Histórias sem data. 1884.

Várias histórias. 1896.

Páginas recolhidas. 1899.

Relíquias de Casa Velha. 1906.

Brazilian Tales. 1921.

The Psychiatrist and Other Stories, edited by Jack Schmitt and Lorie Chieko Ishimatsu. 1963.

The Devil's Church and Other Stories. 1977.


Resurreição. 1872.

A mão e a luva. 1874; as The Hand and the Glove, 1970.

Helena. 1876; translated as Helena, 1984.

Yayá Garcia. 1878; translated as Yayá Garcia, 1976.

Memórias póstumas de Bráz Cubas. 1881; as The Posthumous Memoirs of Braz Cubas, 1951; as Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1952.

Quincas Borba. 1891; as Philosopher or Dog?, 1954; as The Heritage of Quincas Borba, 1954.

Dom Casmurro. 1899; translated as Dom Casmurro, 1953.

Esaú e Jacó. 1904; as Esau and Jacob, 1965.

Memorial de Ayres. 1908; as Counselor Ayres' Memorial, 1982; asThe Wager: Aires' Journal, 1990.

Casa Velha. 1968.


Pipelet, from the novel Les Mystères de Paris by Eugène Sue (produced 1859).

As bodas de Joaninha, with Luíz Olona, music by Martin Allu (produced 1861).

Desencantos: Phantasia dramatica. 1861.

O caminho da porta (produced 1862). In Teatro, 1863.

O protocolo (produced 1862). In Teatro, 1863.

Gabriella (produced 1862).

Quase ministro (produced 1863). 1864(?).

Montjoye, from a play by Octave Feuillet (produced 1864).

Suplício de uma mulher, from a play by Émile de Girardin and Dumas fils (produced 1865). In Teatro, 1937.

Os deuses de casaca (produced 1865). 1866.

O barbeiro de Sevilha, from the play by Beaumarchais (produced 1866).

O anjo de Meia-Noite, from a play by Théodore Barrière and Edouard Plouvier (produced 1866).

A família Benoiton, from a play by Victorien Sardou (produced 1867).

Como elas são tôdas, from a play by Musset (produced 1873).

Tu só, tu, puro amor (produced 1880). 1881.

Não consultes médico (produced 1896). In Teatro, 1910.


Chrysálidas. 1864.

Phalenas. 1870.

Americanas. 1875.

Poesias completas. 1901.


Correspondência, edited by Fernando Nery. 1932.

Adelaide ristori. 1955.

Translator, Os trabalhadores do mar, by Victor Hugo. 1866.


Critical Studies:

The Brazilian Othello of Machado de Assis: A Study of Dom Casmurro, 1960, and Machado de Assis: The Brazilian Master and His Novels, 1970, both by Helen Caldwell; The Craft of an Absolute Winner: Characterization and Narratology in the Novels of Machado de Assis by Maris Luisa Nunes, 1983; The Deceptive Realism of Machado de Assis by John Gledson, 1984; The Poetry of Machado de Assis by Lorie Chieko Ishimatsu, 1984; Machado de Assis by Earl E. Fitz, 1989; Machado de Assis, the Brazilian Pyrrhonian by José Raimundo Maia Neto, 1994; Machado de Assis and Feminism: Re-Reading the Heart of the Companion by Maria Manuel Lisboa, 1996.

* * *

Joaquin Maria Machado de Assis is Brazil's most famous author but was hardly known in the Western world except for his classic novel Memórias póstumas de Bráz Cubas (Epitaph of a Small Winner). A prolific novelist, poet, and essayist, he is also the author of more than 200 short stories, of which, however, only a handful are available in English translation: the only collections in English appearing in the later part of the twentieth century are The Psychiatrist and Other Stories and The Devil's Church and Other Stories. Machado's work in fiction, particularly that done after 1880, has frequently led critics to cite him as a forerunner of such modernists as James Joyce and Franz Kafka. He is even postmodernist in his preoccupation with language and its ambiguous relationship to experience, and many of his stories represent a fierce attack on scientific rationalism and its excesses.

One of his longest and most famous stories, "The Psychiatrist" (1881), concerns a brilliant scientist, Simao Bacamarte, who is determined to investigate and establish objectively the actual nature of insanity. Steadily widening the grounds for the illness, Bacamarte eventually discovers that he has now confined four-fifths of the population of his town to the Green House, as his asylum has become known. Thereupon, with Kafkaesque logic, he turns around and decides that "a theory that classified as sick all people who were mentally unbalanced" was wrong and that "normality lay in a lack of equilibrium and that the abnormal, the really sick, were the well balanced, the thoroughly rational." Following the argument to its extreme, he finally decides that he himself is the only perfect man and confines himself to the asylum.

Machado's fierce attack on reductive forms of logic and rationalism has been inevitably compared to Swift—in fact one critic claims that the story was directly influenced by Swift's "A Serious and Useful Scheme to Make a Hospital for Incurables." The same preoccupation emerges in other stories, such as "Alexandrian Tale" (1884) and "The Secret Heart" (1885), with their depiction of sadism practiced on animals in the name of science but that, in fact, is the product of pathological needs. "The Psychiatrist," however, also displays a fascination with language in itself and in the way it can be used to mislead. The author tells us that "one of the Councilmen who had supported the President was so impressed by the figure of speech, 'Bastille of the human reason,' that he changed his mind." Later, however, when the president speaks of "what was so far merely a whirlwind of uncoordinated atoms," we are told that "this figure of speech counterbalanced to some extent the one about the Bastille."

The satiric comedy in "The Psychiatrist" is common to many of Machado's stories, but he is capable of a great range of effects. A recurring theme is that of repressed love or sexual desire, sometimes between an adolescent boy and an older woman. "A Woman's Arms" concerns the 15-year-old Ignacio who falls in love with Dona Severina, the 27-year-old wife of the lawyer who employs him. When she becomes aware of his infatuation she resists it but is drawn to his room one night and kisses him on the lips, and the boy responds in his dreams. Ignacio is forced to depart from the lawyer's service, and the story ends: "And down the years, in other love adventures, more real and lasting, he never again found the thrill of that Sunday on the Rua da Lapa, when he was only fifteen. To this day he often exclaims, without knowing he is mistaken, 'And it was a dream! Just a dream!"'

The same strange mixture of irony and tenderness in dealing with a similar theme emerges in one of Machado's finest stories, "Midnight Mass" (1894). This begins in the apparently artless, anecdotal style of many of the later stories: "I have never quite understood a conversation that I had with a lady many years ago, when I was seventeen and she was thirty." The narrator recalls a night when he had stayed up to attend midnight mass and was visited in his room by the young wife of the man in whose house he was living. As in "A Woman's Arms" Machado uses subtle detail—the narrator is reading The Three Musketeers, Conceição's modest white negligee is described in detail—to create an atmosphere of stifled and ambiguous, dream-like sensuality.

Machado can write stories that are broadly satirical, like "Education of a Stuffed Shirt" (1881), or that hinge directly and painfully around a moral judgment, such as "Father Versus Mother" (1905) and "The Rod of Justice" (1891), in which he exposes ironically the different moral standards that exist when oneself or others are involved. In the first story a slave-catcher returns a pregnant woman to slavery so that he can keep his own child, while in the second a young seminarian refuses to intercede for a slave who is to be beaten by his aunt, as the aunt had earlier interceded for him. But the implications of even the most personal stories extend out to comment on Machado's own society. There is little doubt that had he written in a language such as English, rather than Portuguese, he would be acclaimed as one of the masters of the short story, along with his great contemporaries such as Maupassant and Kafka.

—Laurie Clancy

See the essays on "Midnight Mass" and "The Psychiatrist."

Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria

views updated May 29 2018

Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria

June 21, 1839
September 29, 1908

The Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is considered by many to be the greatest Latin American literary figure of the nineteenth century. He was born on Quinta do Livramento, a semirural property in the environs of Rio de Janeiro. His paternal grandparents were freed slaves. His baptism certificate lists his mother as a Portuguese native from the Azores and his father as a pardo (a free man of dark skin). They were dependents of the Portuguese widow of a noted military figure and imperial senator, who is listed as Machado's godmother. They lived on the wealthy woman's estate under her protection, in exchange for their services. Machado's younger sister died at age four, and his mother passed away when he was nine years old. His father married a woman of mixed ancestry six years later. However, by his late teens Machado had also lost his father.

Machado de Assis had little formal education, but he was aggressively self-taught: he spoke French and studied German and Greek. His frequent allusions to biblical and classical literature and to the great writers of Europe illustrate an unusual breadth of reading. In his youth he took jobs in the printing trade and began to frequent the book-stores where Rio's most important intellectuals could be found. His first pieces of poetry were published in small local magazines when he was only fifteen. By the age of twenty-one he was making his living as a journalist. Thereafter, Machado's trajectory is one of unbroken ascendancy. He published in all the major genres, achieving particular distinction with the novel (he wrote nine in all) and the short story (more than 200, collected or uncollected). Perhaps the ultimate ratification of his prestige was his election as the first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters in 1897.

Machado also held a series of bureaucratic appointments with the Brazilian government. These positions, normally rather undemanding of time and creativity, were intended as rewards and guarantees of financial stability for the country's most talented intellectuals. In 1869 Machado married a Portuguese woman, Carolina de Novais. This marriage has been celebrated for their devotion to each other, partly because of a now-famous sonnet Machado wrote after her death in 1904. The author struggled with epilepsy for most of his life, and contemporaries reported that he had a problem with stuttering. The fact that the marriage was childless may have been an additional disappointment.

Machado enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive critical reception; only after the proclamation of the republic of Brazil in 1889 does one begin to find notable detractors. Most of these critics attacked what they perceived as a lack of engagement with liberal causes. It is likely that Machado, while sympathetic to these causes, felt hampered by loyalty to the Emperor Dom Pedro II, whose government was his generous employer. Brazil's monarchy was closely tied to the proslavery landholding class, and Machado did not write overtly in favor of abolition. However, as a government official he fastidiously administered laws regarding freeborn children of slaves, usually acting against the interests of the landholders.

Machado de Assis's best work eschews the literary movements of his time. His most virtuosic novel, Memórias póstumous de Brás Cubas (Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas ), appeared in serial installments in 1880, and was published in book form in 1881. Essentially, it is the self-justifying autobiography of a man of privilege who wasted his life. Taking the form of a posthumously written memoir (rather than a posthumously published one), it defies realism in its very inception. His most profound novel is Dom Casmurro (the best translations preserve the original title, which approximately means "Lord Taciturn"), published in 1899. Here, with a tone that mixes nostalgia with bitterness, a highly problematic narrator tells why he thinks his wife (and former childhood sweetheart) betrayed him with his best friend. The novel is a monument of ambiguity, whose questions seem urgent but whose solutions are perhaps impossible.

Like many other mulatto writers in Brazil, Machado did not seem to identify himself as an Afro-Brazilian. There are, in fact, only a few moments in all of his writing when Machado deals directly with racial issues. A selection of these may illustrate the author's general practice of positing interesting problems, rather than engaging in facile judgments of characters or groups. Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas presents a slave who suffers abuse from the protagonist. Later, after this slave has earned his freedom, he is found to have bought and abused his own slave. In the short story "O caso da vara" (translated as "The rod of justice"), an adolescent boy who is being forced to study for the priesthood escapes from the seminary to an influential woman's home, where he pleads for her to be his advocate. In order to gain her support, however, he must act as the woman's accomplice in beating a young black girl. "Pai contra mãe" (a short story translated as "Father versus mother") depicts a hunter of escaped slaves who captures a pregnant young woman and returns her to her master, despite her pleas for her freedom in the name of her unborn child. He must deliver her because he desperately needs the money to avoid giving his own newborn child up for adoption.

Nearly a century after his death, Machado de Assis attracts more critical attention than any other Brazilian writer, both in terms of sheer volume of scholarship and in terms of international impact. He has proved to be a writer's writer, judging by appreciative statements from the likes of Salman Rushdie, John Barth, Susan Sontag, and Carlos Fuentes. Outside of Brazil, his works have never sold as well as those of his compatriot, Jorge Amado, but they have remained in print through several editions. Two collections of short stories and all but one of his novels have been translated into English.


Caldwell, Helen. Machado de Assis: The Brazilian Master and His Novels. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.

Fitz, Earl E. Machado de Assis. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Machado de Assis. The Psychiatrist and Other Stories. Translated by William Grossman and Helen Caldwell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

Machado de Assis. The Devil's Church and Other Stories. Translated by Jack Schmitt and Lorie Ishimatsu. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977.

Machado de Assis. Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. Translated by Gregory Rabassa. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Machado de Assis. Dom Casmurro. Translated by John Gledson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Machado de Assis. Quincas Borba. Translated by Gregory Rabassa. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Nunes, Maria Luisa. The Craft of an Absolute Winner: Characterization and Narratology in the Novels of Machado de Assis. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1983.

paul b. dixon (2005)

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

views updated May 23 2018

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

The Brazilian novelist Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), although only recently "discovered" outside Brazil, ranks among major world authors of the 19th century. His works are notable for their pessimistic view of human nature and their sophisticated psychological insights.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis never left Rio de Janeiro, where he was born. His father was a mulatto house painter, and the future novelist received most of his "formal" education in the kitchen of a girls' school where his stepmother was a dishwasher. At 17 he became a typographer's apprentice and later a proofreader. For most of his life he supported himself—and later his cultured Portuguese wife, 5 years his senior—from his earnings as a middle-ranking bureaucrat. He was sickly from childhood, suffered from epilepsy, and lived in fear that he would suffer an attack in public. As a poor mulatto, he considered himself inferior even when lionized by a public that, to be sure, never really understood him.

Although Machado de Assis began writing early and was widely acclaimed by the time he was 25 years old, it was not until a serious bout with illness and a long convalescence in the late 1870s that he developed his great insight into the human soul. Some critics note his intuitive awareness of the subconscious, his references to what would later be called fetishism, and his belief in man's irrationality, and they consider him a depth psychologist ahead of his time. In any case, his illness stripped from him the last vestiges of romanticism. During this period of illness he also had the opportunity for much reading in English, French, and German, although his artistic development is firmly rooted in the Brazilian milieu.

Machado de Assis' first novel in this new period was Epitaph for a Small Winner (1881). Told in the first person by a character who has already died, it recounts the petty concerns and meaningless acts of selfishness that typify the lives of ordinary men. Ten years later he wrote Philosopher or Dog?, a novel about a man who goes—or has always been—insane; one critic has dubbed Machado de Assis an encomiast of lunacy. The next novel of prominence was Dom Casmurro (1900), the theme of which is man's inability to love.

Machado de Assis also wrote many short stories, some of which have been translated into English. Apart from the potboilers he turned out for serialized publication in Sunday supplements, he left a substantial collection of novels and stories that are rich, perceptive, and humane.

Further Reading

Four of Machado de Assis' novels and a collection of short stories are available in English. José Bettencourt Machado, The Life and Times of Machado de Assis (1953), is adulatory. Helen Caldwell studied one of his novels in The Brazilian Othello of Machado de Assis: A Study of Dom Casmurro (1960) and wrote the biography Machado de Assis: The Brazilian Master and His Novels (1970). Dorothy Scott Loos pays him much attention in The Naturalistic Novel of Brazil (1963). □

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