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Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

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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Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (zhwäkēm´ mərē´ə məshä´dŏŏ dĬ əsēz´), 1839–1908, Brazilian novelist, b. Rio de Janeiro. The grandson of African slaves, he was educated by a priest and became a typesetter, a proofreader, and finally a journalist. His poetry, plays, and short stories were well received, but his reputation as the greatest of Brazilian writers rests upon his realistic novels. His major novels are Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881, tr. Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1952, The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, 1998), Quincas Borba (1891, tr. Philosopher or Dog?, 1954, 1998), and Dom Casmurro (1900, tr. 1953, 1998). They are distinguished by psychological insight, a lack of illusions, a profound awareness of social conditions, and a dark humor, and their objective attitude stands in sharp contrast to the prevalent romantic tendency of the time. His pessimistic view of life is impelled by irony and a profound cynicism.

See studies by H. Caldwell (1970) and J. Gledson (1984).

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Assis, Joaquim Maria Machado de

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: see Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria.

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