Machado published his first poems, short stories, and essays in several periodicals, including A Marmota Fluminense, Correio Mercantil, Diário do Rio de Janeiro, Jornal das Famílias, and Semana Ilustrada. He soon gained a wide readership. In 1869 Machado married Carolina Augusta Xavier de Novais, the sister of his friend the Portuguese poet Faustino Xavier de Novais. In 1873 he began to work as a government employee at the ministry of agriculture. In 1888 he was granted the Order of the Rose by the Emperor of Brazil. He was director of the chamber of commerce in 1889 and executive officer of the ministry of transportation in 1892. In 1896 he founded the Brazilian Academy of Letters and was its president until he died on 29 September 1908. He is considered the greatest and most complete man of letters in Brazil.
That a writer of such high quality emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century, within a society that did not offer the minimal adequate conditions to its poorer members, is a mystery contrary to all the postulates of biological, social, and economic determinism. It can be explained only by the power of genius. Yet, if one can accept the Comte de Buffon's thesis that talent consists of a long work of patience, it is fair to say that, in the case of Machado de Assis, patience constituted half of his brilliance. Machado, an enemy of dilettantism and improvisation, had as a maxim the words "learning by investigation," and he studied with perseverance. He meditated upon the classical authors, through whom he learned the laws of literary art and improved his instrument of literary expression.
Machado de Assis disciplined his temperament, his inspiration, and his imagination. He never rushed, nor was he seduced by facility. He understood that "as one gets older, he acquires solidity, dominates art, increases his resources, and searches for perfection, which is the ambition and duty of all men who use writing to express ideas and sensations." He felt that the secret of art lies in classical equilibrium. He learned that originality and invention are not opposed to tradition; hence he never had an attitude of negation or iconoclasm. He believed that there was no difference between rejecting the past and idolizing it, and he fused tradition and originality. It was his sense of continuity that made him pay attention to the lesson offered by José de Alencar. Alencar managed very well to adapt the form of modern narrative to popular elements and national themes and to create a Brazilian style by combining literary and colloquial language. By following Alencar's methods as well as perfecting his own theory and style, both with respect to national themes and narrative technique, Machado strongly contributed to the establishment of a definitive Brazilian fiction. Indeed his works can be said to be the most genuine and thorough expression of the Brazilian spirit in literature.
The Evolution of a Writer
For a long time Machado's critics believed that his life and work could be distinctly divided into two phases, separated by the landmark year 1880. The novel Memórias Póstumas de Bras Cubas (Epitaph of a Small Winner), published in Revista Brasileira from March to December 1880 and printed in book form the following year, was felt to mark in shift of orientation, in terms of both narrative technique and the author's general attitude toward life. The works published before this date were considered to have been inspired by the romantic atmosphere predominant in Brazil, and the novel Iaiá Garcia (Iaiá Garcia, 1878) to have been the work that suggested that this transition was imminent.
There are decided differences in the author's aesthetic conception before and after Epitaph of a Small Winner. Machado underwent a personal crisis during the 1870's, as he approached the age of forty and the factors that determined his spiritual and aesthetic physiognomy converged. It was then that the multiple, obscure, and complex influences that acted upon him harmonized to create the author's definitive way of being. These factors were of a constitutional, psychological, social, and cultural nature: the awareness of his physical shortcomings (epilepsy and stuttering); the conflict between his awareness of his low social position (resulting from his humble origins and his race) and his preoccupation with social climbing; and the doctrines inspired by the reading of his favorite authors.
The works constituting his initial phase include Crisálidas (Chrysalis, 1864), Falenas (Moth, 1870), Contos Fluminenses (Tales of Rio de Janeiro, 1870), Ressurreição (Resurrection, 1872), Histórias da Meianoite (Midnight Tales, 1873), A Mão e a Luva (The Hand and the Glove, 1874), Americanas (American Poems, 1875), Helena (Helena, 1876), and Iaiá Garcia (1878). The writer, however, had not yet defined his identity. He was searching his way, investigating, trying several genres, seeking fulfillment.
Ultimately, one must reject the idea that there was a sudden change in his work. There was no abrupt rupture between the two phases. It is more accurate to state that the second phase was prepared for by the first and that there was continuity between the two. The difference was not an opposition but simply the result of a process of maturing. During this long process, Machado accumulated the experience that generated his spiritual and aesthetic creed and his concept of literary technique.
There are differences and similarities between the two phases. In both, one finds his psychological inclination and tendency to analyze customs. Humor is present in both, although in the first phase it was not associated with pessimism. It did not have the bitter tone, morbid melancholy, and disillusionment that he acquired later. The humor present in his first books is of a facetious, almost cheerful type. While his first phase was filled with the excessive romantic sentimentalism of that time, the eroticism and sensualism characteristic of his second phase were also present.
The seeds of the technical and stylistic devices developed and refined in his later works are present in the novels of Machado's first phase. His first novel, Ressurreição, contains introspection, linear plot development, interior monologue, a spirit of analysis, and psychological penetration. The critic Barretto Filho stated that this novel was the one among his first books that had "the appearance of modernity," because "concern about the objective event was replaced by the study of characters" (Introduçãa a Machado de Assis, p. 111). Machado was closer here to the psychological novel to which he would later devote himself thoroughly. As he affirmed in the introductory note to his hook, "I did not want to write a novel of manners; I tried to sketch a situation and to build up a contrast between two characters.
The author was struggling at that time between the novelistic pattern then predominant because of romanticism, and his intuition, which pointed in other directions. He knew that there was something new to try, another path to follow, and that was what he eagerly sought. Meanwhile, he continued to experiment, until he gained total control of his devices and established a definitive form for his aesthetic creed. Machado's works show him in a constant struggle to improve his artistic means. Some of his themes appeared first in essays, then in short stories, and finally in novels, and were frequently developed into two or three other forms in his search for perfection. He was a writer who constantly corrected and perfected himself. His meticulous craft was the product of diligence and a combination of experience, study, familiarity with the works of the great writers, and obedience to the rules of his métier.
Machado's phase of transition must be interpreted as a period in which two tendencies conflicted and were transcended: his own creative principles and the established literary traditions. His achievement was a consequence of his capacity to let his principles predominate over the rule of society. The individual talent, as T. S. Eliot defined it, creates a new tradition that imposes itself on the dominant one. By reacting against the romantic pattern, however, Machado was not seduced by the fallacies of naturalism. He did not follow any school in the strict sense. He instead absorbed the important concepts of various schools and incorporated them into his classical aesthetic ideal. He reacted against exaggeration, recognizing the vicissitudes of each school and selectively letting himself be influenced by all of them.
Machado's evolving process of awareness is apparent in the chronology of his publications, especially of his masterful short stories. In 1870 and 1873, Contos Fluminenses and Histórias da Meia-noite were published. The short stories composing these volumes had been published in the magazine Jornal das Famílias, from 1864 to 1869 and from 1872 to 1873, respectively. Barretto Filho was right when he wrote that "they were mediocre, unconvincing . . . works of a beginner, made out of a material arbitrarily chosen" (p. 83). Their value lay in the equilibrium Machado tried to establish between the romantic and the realistic treatment of the theme of love. His taste for psychological analysis was already present, and humor worked to neutralize excessive sentimentalism.
From 1875 on, there was a visible progress toward technical refinement in the short stories (some gathered in the volume Papéis Avulsos [Several Stories, 1882]), especially in the ones written in 1882 and 1883 (published in Histórias sem Data [Undated Tales, 1884]). Machado de Assis perfected his technique by constantly polishing his work · he was a precise and concise writer · and by exploiting all the possibilities of the genre selected. He reached the fullest expression of his creative artistry with Dom Casmurro (Dom Casmurro, 1899), although he added a new dimension to his method in Esaú e Jacó (Esau and Jacob, 1904), especially in his use of symbolic and mythical elements.
Yet, beginning with the short stories of 1875 and Epitaph of a Small Winner, he started establishing his artistic technique, and from that time on, the secret of his success was to exploit that style. The short story was the most fruitful laboratory for his experiments: he wrote more than two hundred. Some are masterpieces of the genre in any language. Epitaph of a Small Winner was not, then, the first and purest example of Machado's method. In 1875, he had already broken with the tradition of the romantic narrative. He had also abandoned the linearity of narrative and the abundant style of his predecessors by using a technique of conciseness and by eliminating any sort of excess in his art. Writing his short stories was a hard apprenticeship, through which he reached his mature method by subordinating the narrative to the analysis of his characters. His work then reveals a desire for accommodation, but also reflects an incessant search for something uncommon, different both from romantic sentimentality and from false naturalistic objectivity.
If for Machado artistic realization presupposed vocation and temperament, it was also a product of discipline, of meticulous effort, of technical consciousness, of study and meditation upon his literary models, of patient and obstinate research, practices that were in consonance with the classical attitude. Machado wrote in the introductory note to Ressurreção: "Reflection achieves its peak with time, and by that I also mean study, a condition without which the spirit remains in perpetual infancy." The art of Machado must be seen as the result of an obstinate, conscious process, in which reflection played the major role.
An examination of the criticism of his works gives further evidence that there was neither rupture nor antinomy between the phases before and after 1880. It reveals that the writer was in a process of constant evolution, always reflecting deeply upon the aesthetic problem. The critical essay "Instinto de Nacionalidade" (Instinct of Nationality), published in the New York journal O Novo Mundo (The New World) in March 1873, can be seen as the natural result of this long mental elaboration. Machado's statements about the question of national art, the influence of people on style, and the balance between nationality and universality, as well as his reflections on various technical aspects of the literary art of several genres, show how the artist was at that time entirely aware of his métier. As with most great artists, his theoretical consciousness awakened before his practical capacity. Although he knew what he wanted, he did not attain the means to achieve it until the second half of the 1870's.
Another example of Machado's theory can be found in his essay on José Maria de Eça de Queiróz' O Primo Basílio (The Cousin Basílio, 1878), published in April 1878. In this masterpiece of practical literary criticism, Machado expressed his conception of literary art, which would later be developed in the essay "A Nova Geração" (The New Generation, December 1879) and in the poem "O Almada" (The Almada, 1879). Machado went through a long process of evolution before reaching total mastery of his art. His critical works constituted the basis for the emergence of his creative spirit. He did not abandon criticism for any extraliterary reason. What he really abandoned was militant criticism, that is, he did not wish to hurt or upset others, although he was always a severe critic of himself and his own works.
Realism and Symbolism
When interpreting Machado's works, some critics have difficulty in defining and classifying him according to the existing literary schools. Although Machado de Assis went through the romantic, naturalistic, Parnassian, and symbolist movements, he never belonged entirely to any of them. He lived the first years of his intellectual life during the romantic movement of the 1850's and 1860's, and he was so much influenced by the world view dominant at that time that he himself confessed: "Those who have sucked romantic milk can eat the naturalistic roast beef; however, when sensing the smell of the Gothic and oriental nipple, they abandon the best piece of meat to search for their infancy's drink. Oh! my sweet romantic milk!" (in "A Semana," Gazeta de Notícias [Rio de Janeiro], 25 December 1892).
Machado's romantic ideas can be better witnessed in his first writings in prose and verse. He also contributed to the romantic dogma of most prestige at the time in Brazil, the Indianist movement. Moreover, the movement's best-known followers, Alencar and Antônio Gonçalves Dias, were no doubt the Brazilian writers Machado most admired. He also was influenced by Manuel Antônio Alvares de Azevedo and such foreign romantic figures as Victor Hugo, François René de Chateaubriand, Giacomo Leopardi, Alfred de Musset, A. M. L. de Lamartine, Heinrich Heine, and Visconde de Almeida-Garrett.
The most typically romantic aspect of his works lay within the novelistic technique employed in his first writings. These consisted of linear narrations that were broken only now and then and were filled with sentimentalism. But romanticism was not present only in the books of his first phase. As Eugênio Gomes has affirmed, even in Epitaph of a Small Winner a heavy tribute is paid to romanticism.
Machado's attitude toward the realist movement was very similar to the one he expressed in relation to romanticism. In the aforementioned essay on the naturalism of Eça de Queiróz, he questioned, in a very incisive manner, the postulates of the school: "Let us face reality, but let us exclude realism, so that we do not sacrifice aesthetic truth" (Crítica, p. 83). "Reality is good, but realism is not worth anything" (p. 151). What was important for him, above all, was aesthetic truth, not to be confused with the photography of reality. Art was not a copy but a transfiguration of reality. That was why he remained in the juste-milieu, neither in romanticism, nor in realism: "I do not certainly want the obsolete portraits of decadent romanticism. On the contrary, there is something in realism that can be used to benefit imagination and art. However, the mere substitution of one excess for the other amounts to nothing at all" (p. 81).
The same holds true for Machado's practice. Although he refused the exaggerations of realism, he did not deny its contribution to artistic realization. In a study on Machado's aesthetics, Gomes has pointed out several aspects of realism present in his works: the persistence of formal, organic, metaphysical, and moral decomposition; the theme of dissolution; images and metaphors related to diseases, carnal deterioration, and death; death, illness, and physical misery in its most disgusting aspects; inferences of a scientific character; biological determinism and a mechanistic conception of life; and philosophical positivism (Aspectos do Romance Brasileiro, p. 103). In many cases, such as that of the short story "O alienista" ("The Psychiatrist"), Machado's intention was to satirize the exaggerations of the school. "In some way, . . . he paid a tribute to naturalism which was, perhaps, beyond his intentions" (ibid.), but he was certainly not overly influenced by it.
In the same way that Machado did not become totally involved with either romanticism or naturalism, he also maintained a critical detachment in relation to symbolism. Gomes has, however, pointed out the influence of the symbolic conception of art and the manipulation of myth during the writer's last phase, especially in Esau and Jacob.
The phase of Brazilian literature that followed naturalism, particularly in the first two decades of the twentieth century, only recently has been better understood by critics. After 1890, the objective and factual aesthetic of naturalism was exhausted. In its place came a wave of subjectivity and interiorization that caused a considerable transformation in literature, especially in prose writing. This aesthetic process, formed by the confluence of symbolism and naturalism, produced what is known today as impressionism.
In this respect, the work of Machado de Assis is extremely significant. As was stated above, Machado was initially a romantic, who then took part in naturalism in an independent manner, although he was influenced by many of its postulates and techniques, including autobiographical method, the observation of reality, dramatic narration, organic structure, and flexible plot. However, Machado was never a typical realist. His conception of art made him not so much a photographer of life as a re-creator of reality. For him, art and life were different. He conceived art as a set of symbols and conventions, without which the use of the elements of life is fruitless. Art was illusion, verisimilitude, transfiguration of reality.
Machado progressed toward this conception of art, which was accomplished in his late books. His tendency to interiorization and psychological analysis, his restless fantasy, and his tragic view of human existence were the substrata that led him to a transfigured realism, enlarged by symbolism and mythology, that is, an impressionistic realism. His last works were especially marked by this view and constituted a world of symbols and allegories. Thanks to his realistic technique, he extracted from everyday reality the life material he would transform into art. The fait divers (small news item) was, thus, transformed into fiction. However, the fact was altered, was rejected as a fact and transformed into aesthetic substance, into aesthetic truth, by means of which life revealed its deepest secrets. By not affiliating with any specific literary school, by keeping apart from false alternatives, by extracting from each the elements he considered useful for the formation of his aesthetic world view, Machado de Assis produced his works according to the classical ideal, to which he owes his permanence and universality.
The Transformation of Influences
When Machado de Assis affirmed that "one can use an alien spicery, but must season it with a sauce of his own making" (in Afrânio Coutinho, Machado de Assis na Literatura Brasileira, p. 31), he was stating his "theory of the sauce," of originality in literature. In another passage, he condemned Victor Hugo's imitators, who judged themselves poets just because they produced verses: "To be a disciple is something else: it is to learn with his master and to incorporate into his own spirit the spirit of the master" (Crítica, p. 35). He insisted: "No one will ever deny that the natural evolution of a thing modifies its appearance, its external feature; but there is something that links Homer to Lord Byron, something unchangeable, universal and common, which is important to all men and to all times" (p. 221).
Machado de Assis was a writer aware of his métier, and all his creative works were founded on a strong theoretical basis, on a general conception of art and literature, of the genres and the process of literary creation. The set of aesthetic principles on which Machado established his judgments of value are present in his essay on Eça de Queiróz and the realistic school. In this work he studied plot, structure, character development · everything that constituted an aesthetic, specific, or peculiar element in the construction of the novel · and revealed the literary nature of the genre. His criticism was thus of an aesthetic or poetic nature, in the manner of Aristotle, and not of a moral sort. The understanding of Machado's literary theory is fundamental to the interpretation of his narrative technique.
The influence of other writers on Machado's works is also of great importance. The study of sources and influences reveals the enormous debt he owed to ancient and modern foreign writers. He assimilated and transformed the material he absorbed through reading. What matters in art is not the material itself, but rather the way the material is treated. When Machado sought inspiration, suggestions, images, models, formulas, or solutions in alien sources, he never used them exactly as they were or reproduced them literally.
He employed the same procedure in handling the material he collected from the observation of reality. His view of life was transfigured into artistic material, and his experience of reality was transformed into aesthetic truth.
For a long time, Machado was accused of not being a typically Brazilian writer, of being inspired by foreign books, of not being intimately related to Brazil in terms of its subjects, settings, atmosphere, characters, topics, and style. The absence of landscape in his works was said to point up his lack of identification with the environment. Although Machado admitted some foreign influences in the development of his technique, his art, and his conception of life, the Brazilian character of his works is widely accepted today. Machado, a typical Brazilian mestizo, could not escape from the influence of his milieu; he was and he is a real Brazilian writer. His "theory of the sauce" is of great help in understanding both his process of creation and his Brazilian character. The artist provides a new treatment for themes and forms.
Everything, said T. S. Eliot, is renewed through expression. And this was exactly what Machado did: he gave a new treatment to themes and formulas that were frequently old and alien. By transforming, with his own sauce, raw material extracted from different sources, he attained his originality, his very personal formula. All his works reflect the environment in which he lived. The themes he employed were those of his time and place or were adapted to them by means of his process of seasoning the alien material. His imagination was filled with images and figures belonging to the reality around him, and the autobiographical element was of great importance in his works.
Machado was neither French nor English, as some critics once thought. He was a Brazilian in the full sense of the word, and Brazil recognizes him as such; hence, his increasing popularity. He expressed an "instinct of nationality" throughout his works. With his personal touch, he transformed his raw material into new and original works of a real Brazilian character. Through the use of Brazilian elements, he became a universal writer, like Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare. The more national they were, the more universal they became.
Machado's works reflected his time and environment. His themes were extracted from the life of Rio de Janeiro at the time of the Second Kingdom in the nineteenth century. Without being chauvinistic, he was a national and popular writer. His works reflected the problems of his people, their customs, preoccupations, ideals, and difficulties. The national element is not opposed to the universal one. In order to reach the universal character, the writer has to be national and popular, since it is in the magma of his region, in the reality of his people, through the assimilation of the national legacy that he finds the nourishing blood that gives him greatness and universality.
Machado's method was to treat the Brazilian character in an indirect manner. This theory was well expressed in his critical works, mainly in the famous essay "Instinto de Nacionalidade":
There is no doubt that a literature, especially an
emerging one, should nourish itself with the themes of
its region. However, we should not establish such
absolute doctrines that may limit it. What one should
demand from the writer is, above all, a certain intimate
feeling that could make of him a man of his time and
country, even when he is dealing with themes that are
remote in time and space.
This doctrine was widely applied by Machado in his criticism. The criterion he employed to estimate the aesthetic value of literary works was an apt one: he subordinated local color to feeling when evaluating the "instinct of nationality." The same standard serves to describe his own works. This fact made Astrojildo Pereira characterize him as "the most national, the most Brazilian of all writers and, at the same time, the most universal one." (Machado de Assis, pp. 14-15). And if it is true, Pereira continued, that "other writers have depicted Brazilian scenery more closely, none of them revealed Brazilian men in a deeper manner" (p. 15). The same critic stressed the "intimate and deep consonance between the literary work of Machado de Assis and the meaning of the political and social evolution of Brazil" (p. 17) during a transition period in which literary stereotypes of the rural aristocracy were replaced by the portraits that Machado offered of the society of his time: conditions within the patriarchal family, which often held social conventions to be more important than love and frequently imposed marriages of convenience; the psychological and social consequences of slavery; the effects of war; the political habits of the time; financial problems; the cultural changes caused by positivism and naturalism during the 1870's; and the literary search for national identity.
Machado's style was so much the expression of his time and milieu that, as far as language is concerned, no one may question his national character. In the same way that the tradition, the landscape, and the life of his time and milieu were present in his works, the language he employed was that used by his fellow citizens, that is, the old Portuguese idiom transformed under the impact of the new Brazilian geographical and social reality. He made this point clear in the final part of "Instinto de Nacionalidade."
Machado de Assis extended the vast nationalistic tradition that comes from Gregório de Matos to Gonçalves Dias, Alencar, and Antonio de Castro Alves, since he believed that literature was an expression of the national world view and that it played an important role in the development of the people and the unity of the country. Barretto Filho stated that "[Machado] became the central event of the Brazilian literary life, an isolated and peculiar expression of something important to our nation" (p. 230).
The main point, when judging an artist, consists of knowing whether or not he attained artistic fulfillment. One may disagree with his world view, his philosophical attitude, and the conception of art underlying his work. However, it is not the critic's duty to judge the artist's philosophy. In order to approach a work of art, the critic must have an attitude of "suspension of disbelief," as T. S. Eliot stated. The important thing for the critic is to verify if, regardless of the author's philosophy, he was successful in translating it, in transfiguring life into art, and to verify if the technique used was the most suitable for this purpose. This process of verification is the function of the critic. He should face the author and his work of art as they are and not as he believes they should have been. For the critic there is no right or wrong in art, nor is it his duty to morally condemn an author or attempt to correct him. Works of art are to be understood and judged aesthetically. Moral judgment and aesthetic judgment should not be confused, in the same way that moral truth and aesthetic truth are in essence different.
There are critics, however, who have condemned the philosophy of life implicit in Machado's works, a pessimistic and skeptical philosophy that sees man as an evil and corrupt being, dominated by selfishness, sensuality, ingratitude, meanness, lowness, villainy, and hatred. Machado's art has been viewed by some as existing only to torment his readers by means of a constant and systematic destruction and negation of values and themes of belief and hope, of faith in mankind, life, and God. There is no doubt that this is the philosophy present in his books. One may not agree with Machado's conception of life, but the critic should investigate only whether the writer was successful from an aesthetic point of view. Machado's pessimism was expressed in his artistic creations through a radical hatred for life and humanity, a total lack of sympathy and a distrust for man, an absolute indifference to man's suffering, and an overall feeling of bitterness and despair. This is the general tone of his works, the permanent note of his interpretation of the world · this lack of generosity in judging men and life.
Machado saw man's pure, noble, and altruistic acts as rare, and when he admitted their existence, the author always tried to unmask them, to reveal their selfish or sensual origin, the "cotton fringe of the silk mantle." He believed that there was always a secret cause to be looked for in human acts and that it was the task of the novelist to uncover it. In accordance with the dominant ideas of his time, Machado assented to a certain universal determinism. Thus he believed that evil things always happen and that it is not possible to change men, for each is born with a destiny that no education or discipline can alter. Machado's world view was shaded by pessimism and nihilism. He saw only the bad side of human nature.
The major intellectual source of Machado's pessimism was Pascal, whom he read very much since he was young, as he himself confessed in a letter to Joaquim Nabuco, on 19 August 1906, "not to amuse myself." Machado's pessimism, however, was more radical than Pascal's, since the latter, while he pointed out the essential contradiction of human nature, still had hope in a future life. Pascal did not believe in man and hated life, but he had confidence in God. Machado, on the other hand, did not trust men, did not love life, and did not hope for any future blessedness. Misery and pain, evil and suffering constituted the essence of life for Machado de Assis, who could not see, due to his private resentments, the good side of life. Such moral nihilism can be seen in the desolate final confession of Brás Cubas: "I had no children. Therefore I did not transmit to anyone the legacy of our misery." The problem of man and his fate, according to the Christian thesis of the Fall, which sees the earth as a valley of tears, is aggravated by Machado's distrust of future redemption, by his essentially negative and pessimistic ethic. Machado expressed, through a bitter and sardonic humor, the total misery of man and his impotence in the face of nature's laws.
In the genesis of this philosophy of life, there were antecedents and personal motivations of a social, psychological, and hereditary order, which gave the author an exaggerated consciousness of human miseries, a very refined taste for depicting the bad side of man, and a dark vision of social life. Machado was a very resentful person, although he often disguised this aspect of his personality. However, his private complaint against life was occasionally revealed. In a letter to Nabuco on 29 August 1903, for example, he reacted against the charge of pessimism assigned to him but confessed that it might be true, adding: "I sometimes attribute more justice to Nature, than Nature to man." His resentment was tied to his physical infirmities and to his race.
It is also important to insist, however, on the intellectual influence of other writers upon the works of Machado, especially those who provided him with his favorite readings. Machado's pessimism was in part a consequence of the reading and study of his favorite philosophers, who provided a philosophical framework for his natural tendencies.
Machado's pessimism and skepticism found artistic expression through humor, the instrument he used to express anguish and resentment caused by human cruelty and physical and moral suffering. Laughing at man's ridiculous acts was his way of disguising his own misery. Machado found his main source for humor in the English humorists, from whom he learned many of the technical and rhetorical devices employed in his works. Only in his maturity, after he had read the English humorists, were the traits of Machado's humor definitely established. However, while the role played by the English humorists was important in Machado's works, these influences complemented his innate tendencies.
In Machado, humor was associated with pessimism, bitterness, and hatred toward the human species. But, above all, what was essential and what constituted the peculiar trait that distinguished him from the English humorists was his moralistic preoccupation, his constant attempt to define man and his relations in society. Contrary to the pure humoristic purposes of many of those authors, amusement in Machado was always accompanied by a realistic idea of man, extracted from real, everyday life but related to the universality of the human condition. He was also a great psychologist, a conscious observer of man and human conduct. And since his judgment of man's nature was not very indulgent, he translated it into art through humor, the most appropriate expression for his temperament and view. In order to understand him, one must connect humor to melancholy and grief, to bitterness and tedium, to pessimism and hatred toward life.
Machado's craftsmanship can be seen through an examination of the technical devices of his fiction. Few works of art reveal so well the nature of fiction as a form of art; few workers were so conscious as Machado of the role played by craftsmanship. He paid great attention and gave importance to the diverse aspects of narrative technique and for that purpose he read the great works of literature. In the heroic-comic poem "O Almada," he confessed that he had studied the genre of the book before writing it. By knowing his métier, he was free to innovate. Quincas Borba (Philosopher or Dog?, 1891), for example, was polished so much that the final version was quite distinct from the first one, published in A Estação (The Season), between 1886 and 1891.
Machado was, above all, a great storyteller. He related his life experience to his personal view of the world, to a vigorous selection of subjects and themes, and to a capacity to capture the essential aspects of characters and situations. He employed fantasy and imagination when treating the observed material. He created an original style, as can be seen in his use of language and choice of words. Finally, he also carefully selected the technical devices he used to deal with problems such as plot, point of view, order of the narrative, presentation of the characters, creation of suspense, dramatization, movement of the narrative, and manipulation of time. Machado learned how to solve these and other problems by studying the great models of the genre since Homer.
In terms of point of view, the narrator, while reporting his story, may place himself inside or outside the limits of action. If inside, he narrates the story in the first person, assuming the personality of his character, be it the main or a secondary character, or even several different characters. Machado employed this method in Epitaph of a Small Winner, Dom Casmurro, and Memorial de Aires (Counselor Ayres' Memorial, 1908). In the first two books, the narrators are the main characters; they report the events of their own lives and are able to analyze themselves. The facts reported are limited to what the narrator has seen, heard, felt, or thought. In Counselor Ayres' Memorial, the narrator reports, in the format of a diary, events that occur around him. The narrator is not omniscient, because he has a limited view of the events observed. He is not an active participant, but a close observer, though in a position of relative independence. With this technique, the novelist accomplished a deeper psychological analysis, and the story gained in plausibility and emotional intensity.
In all his other novels, Machado used the external point of view. The narrator was a third person, outside the external limits of the action, kept apart from the events. He did not identity himself with the circumstances of the story. He was an impartial observer who watched the events and reported them objectively. Sometimes the narrator had a complete knowledge of the story; that is, he was omniscient, as in the case of Philosopher or Dog? and Ressurreição. The narrator knew everything; he was everywhere, including within the characters' minds; thus he knew their thoughts and feelings, and guessed their desires and analyzed them mentally. In other cases, the observer limited his view to the external facts and did not worry about what happened in the characters' minds, allowing them to define themselves by means of their actions and behavior. This is the dramatic or visual narrative technique, so dear to Guy de Maupassant, that Machado frequently used, especially in his short stories.
One of Machado's characteristics, related to the issue of point of view, was the intrusion of the narrator in addressing the reader. He comments, interprets, or talks to the reader in the first person, referring to facts of the story in the manner of William Makepeace Thackeray. "Do you want the other side of the story, curious reader?" asks the third-person narrator of Philosopher or Dog? Placed outside the story, he gives the impression that the responsibility for the story is his own and that he knows it entirely.
By varying the point of view, Machado achieved objectivity and impersonality, demonstrating a rare mastery of this technical device. It is important to notice, also, that this technical control was perfected in his last works, in which, instead of a vague, omniscient narrator, he introduced an interested narrator who reports the story in the first person. The critic Dirce Côrtes Riedel shows how the problem of the point of view in Machado's last book (Counselor Acres' Memorial) was complicated by the introduction of three levels of time · that of the report of the judge of the Court of Appeals, that of the counselor's report, and that of the events narrated · and how the author used the artifice of changing the perspective of the narrator. The importance of point of view in Machado's work can also be observed in his novel Dom Casmurro, a story of adultery that ends in an ambiguous manner, owing to the fact that it is reported by a person involved in the triangle · the heroine's husband.
The presentation of characters was a problem of narrative technique very well solved by Machado. One way of presenting the characters is the descriptive manner, by which the character is presented in a report or description. The character is introduced either at the beginning or as the narrative develops, through a progressive analysis in which the narrator frequently offers comments and explanations about the character's behavior. Machado used the latter method widely.
But the method in which Machado excelled was the dramatic or implicit one. According to this method, the character is revealed by means of his own acts and words and by the reports of other characters. Dialogues and monologues can play an important role. This method predominated in Machado's works because he preferred a dramatic tone for the narration. In The Hand and the Glove, the characters are introduced by means of their own dialogues. Later the narrator tells about their lives, thus complementing their self-characterization. This method was used by Machado especially in his short stories.
Machado's dramatic tendency is responsible for the fact that there are not many descriptions of characters or landscapes in his books. His interest was in the inner life of his characters and the effects of their consciousness upon their actions. As stated by Gustavo Corção in an article in Diário de Noticias on 6 June 1958, "a novel is the art of personalities, more than the narration of facts and events." The author himself declared, in his preface to Ressurreiç ão, as if foreseeing the process he would later adopt in Epitaph of a Small Winner, "I did not want to write a novel of manners; I tried the sketch of a situation and the contrast between two characters." When criticizing Eça de Queiróz' O Primo Basílio, he revealed the mastery he had of the process of constructing characters: "Luisa is . . . a puppet" (Crítica, p. 63). Machado pointed out the futility of the heroine's character, her lack of moral substance. The psychological analysis of the characters had to be accompanied, for Machado, by a certain moral coherence, without which the former would become mere puppets.
The characters in Machado's first books were, with few exceptions, mere types that could be defined in a very generic manner. Barretto Filho compared some of Machado's female characters, so important in his works, pointing out the difference between Lívia (Ressurreição) · a figure of inaccurate and vague characterization · and the later Virgília (Epitaph of a Small Winner) · a complex and fascinating human being. Other complex female characters in Machado's later works are Sofia (Quincas Borba), Capitu (Dom Casmurro), and Flora (Esau and Jacob), all of them characters of great human dimension and highly representative of the Brazilian reality that served as his point of departure. Because of Machado's great ability in creating characters, his works contain a remarkable gallery of heroes and heroines, protagonists and antagonists, caricatures and types · a whole universe of characters moved by a tragic view of life.
When handling the elements of plot · complication, climax, resolution · Machado took special care with the creation and maintenance of interest and suspense. His short stories were extraordinary in this respect. But the finest example of maintenance of suspense is his novel Dom Casmurro. Machado also varied the chronological order of the narrative a great deal. Epitaph of a Small Winner, for example, begins with the death of the protagonist, that is, with the solution of the story. It is the dead man himself who hesitates, at the beginning of the narrative, about whether he should start the report of his memories from his early childhood or from the last part of his life; he finally chooses the second alternative. This is the Homeric way of narrating in flashback, used, for instance, in the Odyssey.
In many cases, as in his novel Iaiá Garcia, Machado used linear or chronological narrative, with no alterations or interruptions. The interruption of the narrative for a reflection or digression on the part of the author is very frequent, however, in his works. A typical example is chapter 130 of Dom Casmurro, in which the author excuses himself for breaking up the linearity of the narrative. Discontinuity and fragmentation of the narrative were in accordance with Machado's conception of art and were often employed in his last novels and short stories.
The problem of the order of the narrative is intrinsically connected with that of time, the treatment of which gave Machado the opportunity to demonstrate his technical mastery when dealing with a problem of major importance in modern fiction. This aspect of Machado's work has been analyzed by two of his critics, Riedel and Wilton Cardoso.
Professor Riedel demonstrates how Machado anticipated modern solutions for expressing psychological time in making use of an impressionistic technique by which time is delayed to represent the inner rhythm of life and to give way to the narrator's interferences. She points out that the treatment of time powerfully influenced the structure of Machado's novels and enumerates several aspects of this influence on his choices in terms of point of view, episodic structure, the use of humor, narrative order, the presentation of the characters, the novel's structure, plot development, and stylistic advances.
In Machado's works the past is expressed in an evocative and suggestive style, which confers upon his works an impressionistic resonance. Instead of faithfully copying reality, the author uses a suggestive tone of imaginative effect, which creates a subtle and vague atmosphere. Machado was not interested in mere intrigue, but rather in the psychological analysis of his characters. Thus, his narrative and plot are subordinated to the expression of the characters, and even the structure of the works and the order of the narrative are less important than the effects generated by his registering of feelings and emotions. Events are not ordered according to cause and effect. Rather, they are part of a subjective world and are evoked in an illogical, nonchronological manner. The narrator tries to capture the past moment and, even when reporting a subjective reality, does so in a vague and indirect manner, focusing especially on the impression of the moment. For this reason, there are not many descriptions of exterior reality in Machado's works. The narrator for him was the interpreter of a certain view of human nature. Hence the importance of pictorial and tonal effects on his works.
Machado's art was undoubtedly realistic, but his was a special kind of realism, an impressionistic realism. Not all of reality interested him. He selected from it what he needed in order to create the impression, the sensation, the emotion generated in his spirit by its presence. Hence we observe the relevant role that symbol played in his work and the importance of atmosphere, often the central element in the story, as in "Missa do Galo" ("Midnight Mass") and "Uns Braços" ("A Woman's Arms"). Impressions awakened by the senses are also common in Machado's works: vision, smell, taste, hearing, and touch register moments that are later recollected by the artist. They contribute to the atmosphere of voluptuousness and sensuality that is present in some of his short stories and novels.
Machado was a highly imaginative writer who reached the reader both emotionally and intellectually. His writings were predominantly of a psychological sort, and his rare power of evoking past impression, thus creating present and enduring emotion, is the secret of the permanence of his works. The art of suggestion and impression demanded special techniques of language and style. Some of Machado's major stylistic traits are a simple, exact, and clear syntax; a brisé and saccadé rhythm; short, discontinuous, fragmented sentences, deprived of élan and rhetorical effects, of symmetries, subordinations, and coordinations. Machado's evocative intention called for the use of the imperfect indicative, which, as Augusto Meyer has observed, was sometimes converted into the present tense · a psychological present tense, not just an imitation of the historical present. Another device frequently used by the novelist was indirect speech, a technique by means of which he hid himself behind his characters.
In order to transmit his emotions and sensations, the impressionist writer makes abundant use of rhetorical figures. Machado had an outstanding command of metaphor and simile, and thanks to it, he often transmitted his impressions so well that the reader could perceive them as if they were his own. Unusual metaphors were of special interest for him, mainly those that focused on sensations. Machado's style, however, was basically characterized by its conciseness. It was this aspect, above all, that was responsible for its greatness.
The study of themes in Machado's works · and their persistence and repetition · is extremely significant for the understanding of his aesthetic conception. Machado often first outlined a theme or an idea in an essay and later developed it in a short story or a novel. He was a patient writer who sometimes experimented repeatedly with an idea. This iterative process may have been a consequence of his morbid personality or the result of his struggle for perfection.
The most extensive and widely used of Machado's themes were those that dealt with his tragic view of existence, his intrinsic pessimism, and his existential restlessness. They include a preoccupation with death and the relativity and the transitory nature of life; the existence of evil; the essential contradictions of man; the absurd character of life; the instability of human judgment; insanity and cruelty; the ambiguous nature of man; human ingratitude; the predominance of evil over good; tedium; the dualism of pleasure and disillusionment; the longing for perfection and immortality; vanity and selfishness; the misleading nature of love; the precariousness of scientific theories and philosophical systems; and the contrast between infancy and death, abundance and misery.
Another important theme in Machado's works concerns the financial condition of the characters. No one works in Machado's fictional world, as a consequence of his pessimistic view. Laziness is the rule among Machado's characters, since life is not worthy of effort. Many of his characters live on family fortunes, retirement pensions, legacies, loans, suspicious business dealings, or lotteries. Financial preoccupation is constant in Machado's works, in compensation for the general absence of regular work.
Social themes were important in Machado's works, which were a faithful mirror of the society of his time, a social picture of the Second Kingdom in Brazil. He was a novelist of his time and place, of the small bourgeois world and the society around him. Social background and position are depicted in his books through the use of articles of adornment and wardrobe, personal possessions, houses, modes of transportation, and honorific titles.
Aesthetic and Critical Beliefs
Underlying Machado's artistic creation was a code of aesthetic values and a critical doctrine. Criticism, for him, had the function not only of regulating literary production in general, but also of serving as a guide for his own creative activity. His idea was that of a didactic kind of criticism, out of which good literature would spring. Hence his affirmation: "Do you want to change this distressing situation? Then, you should establish criticism" (Crítica literária, p. 12). This is the same thought James Russell Lowell had regarding American literature: "Before we can think of having an American literature, we must have an American criticism." This topic was later developed by Machado in the essay "Instinto de Nacionalidade," in which he spoke out in favor of a doctrinaire and normative type of criticism that would improve taste and stimulate invention, that is, work that would be simultaneously criticism and self-criticism.
Self-criticism played a decisive role in Machado's literary creation, so decidedly characterized by discipline and a strong sense of responsibility. Machado's aesthetic conception was in accordance with the classical tradition. For the ancient writers, art was the result of a formal regulation of the subject, impossible without a code of rules. Machado's rule was to complement creativity with the study of poetics. He was for the autonomy of art; for him, aesthetic and ethical truth were two different things.
Having distinguished art and moral, aesthetic and historical truth, we must consider again the problem of realism. As stated earlier, when Machado condemned realism, he did not disregard reality. The realistic technique, he declared, "is the very negation of the principles of art," since "there is an unsurpassing limit between reality, according to art, and reality, according to nature." For this reason, art is not "the faithful reproduction of things, men and facts" (Crítica literária, p. 188).
If the novelist's mission was to copy facts the way they
are in reality, art would be worthless; memory would
substitute for imagination. . . . The mere narration of a
fact does not constitute a novel; it would, at best, make
a section of a newspaper. It is the poet who takes life
events and transfigures them with art's magic hand.
Criticism should not judge the nature of this or that
individual, but rather that of the characters depicted by
the poet and should discuss less the feelings of people
than the skill of the writer.
(Crítica literária, pp.62, 64)
Machado's position was clear: one should turn to reality, but should exclude realism, in order not to sacrifice aesthetic truth. He considered art not an imitation but rather a transfiguration of reality. His works, therefore, should be judged and understood according to this concept of objective criticism, in light of which "it is not enough to read an author; it is necessary also to compare and question his truth" (Crítica literária, p. 13). This means that the critic should adopt the author's point of view, apprehend his truth, and then verify if the work done was faithful to such truth. This way of thinking was especially important in 1859, a time when romanticism still glorified the author as a hero and when the writer's biography often attracted more interest than his literary work. It was only in the twentieth century that the work itself recovered its importance for criticism.
A final aspect of great importance for Machado's aesthetic creed is that of the nationality of art, of which his works were an example and a lesson. To affirm the national character in literature is not to list names of flowers, fruits, and animals typical of the country from which they spring. National character should not be confused with local color. It consists, rather, of "a sort of intimate feeling that can make of the writer a man of his time and place" (Crítica literá ria, pp. 134-135). This deeper kind of nationalism reconciles the outer society in which the author lives, and "a more elevated order of ideas," so as to attain a condition of universality. This fusion of nationality and universality was successfully achieved in Machado's works, and he is unanimously recognized in Brazil as the national writer par excellence.
Translated from the Portuguese by Maria Lúcia Rocha Coutinho
From: Coutinho, Afrânio. "Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis." Latin American Writers, edited by Carlos A. Solé, vol. 1, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.