Authors: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Brazilian novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and poet.

June 21, 1839

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

September 29, 1908

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was born to a Portuguese mother from the Azores and a mulatto house painter from Rio de Janeiro. Some of Machado’s critics attribute the pessimism evident in his works to feelings of inferiority about his mixed-race heritage; it is also sometimes attributed to his physical ailments, particularly the epilepsy so little understood in his day. His novels reveal what some call “smiling, bitter pessimism” and others, “sad, bitter irony.”

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Machado de Assis began his literary career as a poet in the transition period between romanticism and Brazilian Parnassianism, which was less objective and impersonal than the French prototype. He also wrote plays and excellent short stories. His first three novels, beginning with Resurreição (Resurrection, 2013) in 1872, though in the romantic vein, betray a realistic author intent on suppressing emotion. His first great success was Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881; Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1952), whose supposed author wrote beyond the grave “with the pen of jesting and the ink of melancholy” to prove that nothing leads to nothing. Quincas Borba (1891; Philosopher or Dog?, 1954) introduces Machado de Assis’s only truly virtuous character, and he is a madman. In this work, the administrator of the estate of a wealthy Rio philosopher learns that nothing is permanent except the affection of the dog that was the rich man’s heir.

Dom Casmurro (1899; English translation, 1953) may be the best starting point for those who wish to know Machao de Assis's works. In it, life is portrayed as it is. The author looks neither to its evil nor to its goodness, but rather delves into the soul of an unhappy and weak character who ponders the reasons for his wife’s supposed unfaithfulness and then decides that he is happy because they have no children to inherit “the legacy of his misery.” Dom Casmurro helps explain why Machado de Assis is classified as Brazil’s first true psychological novelist, and why critics and readers alike are intrigued by a text that seems to resist interpretation. In Machado de Assis’s novels, the journey rather than the goal is the pleasure, and there are pauses for reflection and contemplation. Action is unimportant. The novelist deals with ideas, turned into characters with human form. He makes no attempt to solve the problems of society.

Though he struggled with poverty, epilepsy, and poor vision, Machado de Assis has been called by Érico Lopes Verissimo “the highest expression of our literary genius, the most eminent figure of our literature.” After founding the Academia Brasileira de Letras in 1896, Machado de Assis was elected president and then reelected every year until his death over a decade later. A flawless choice of words, force and originality of thought, and masterly control of form characterize his work.

Author Works Long Fiction: Ressurreição, 1872 (Resurrection, 2013) A mão e a luva, 1874 (The Hand and the Glove, 1970) Helena, 1876 (English translation, 1984) Iaiá Garcia, 1878 (Yayá Garcia, 1976) Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, 1881 (Epitaph of a Small Winner, 1952; also known as Posthumous Reminiscences of Braz Cubas, 1955; The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, 1997) O alienista, 1881–82 (serial), 1882 (in Papéis avulsos; novella; “The Psychiatrist,” 1963) Quincas Borba, 1891 (Philosopher or Dog?, 1954; published in UK as The Heritage of Quincas Borba, 1954) Dom Casmurro, 1899 (English translation, 1953) Esaú e Jacó, 1904 (Esau and Jacob, 1965) Memorial de Aires, 1908 (Counselor Ayres’ Memorial, 1972; also known as The Wager: Aires’ Journal, 2005) Short Fiction: Contos fluminenses, 1870 Histórias da meia-noite, 1873 Papéis avulsos, 1882 Histórias sem data, 1884 Várias histórias, 1896 Páginas recolhidas, 1899 Relíquias da casa velha, 1906 Histórias românticas, 1937 Páginas esquecidas, 1939 The Psychiatrist, and Other Stories, 1963 (William L. Grossman and Helen Caldwell, translators) What Went On at the Baroness’: A Tale with a Point, 1963 (Helen Caldwell, translator) The Devil’s Church, and Other Stories, 1977 (Jack Schmitt and Lorie Ishimatsu, translators) A Chapter of Hats: Selected Stories, 2008 (John Gledson, translator) Drama: Pipelet, pr. 1859 (opera; adaptation of Eugène Sue's Les mystères de Paris) Hoje avental, amanhã luva, pb. 1860 (serial) Odisséia dos vinte anos, pb. 1860 As bodas de Joaninha, pr. 1861 (opera) Desencantos, pb. 1861 Queda que as mulheres têm para os tolos, pb. 1861 (adaptation of Victor Hénaux's De l'amour des femmes pour les sots) O camhino da porta, pr. 1862, pb. 1863 (in Teatro de Machado de Assis) Gabriela, pr. 1862 O protocolo, pr. 1862, pb. 1863 (in Teatro de Machado de Assis) Montjoye, pr. 1864 (translation of Octave Feuillet's Montjoye) Quase ministro, pr. 1863, pb. 1864 Teatro de Machado de Assis, pb. 1863 O pomo de discórdia, wr. ca. 1864 (submitted to Conservatório Dramático Brasilieiro in 1864, possibly never performed) Os deuses de casaca, pr. 1865, pb. 1866 Suplíco de uma mulher, pr. 1865 (translation of Delphin de Girardin and Alexandre Dumas fils's Le supplice d'une femme) O anjo da meia-noite, pr. 1866 (translation of Théodore Barrière and Édouard Plouvier's L'ange de minuit) O remorso vivo, pr. 1867 (musical; with Joaquim Serra and Arthur Napoleão) Tu só, tu, puro amor, pb. 1880 Não consultes médico, wr. 1896, pb. 1910 (in Teatro) Lição de botânica, wr. 1906, pb. 1910 (in Teatro) Teatro, pb. 1910 Poetry: Crisálidas, 1864 Falenas, 1870 Americanas, 1875 Poesias completas, 1901 Nonfiction: Critica, 1910 A semana, 1910 Crítica por Machado de Assis, 1924 Crítica literária, 1937 Crítica teatral, 1937 Correspondência, 1938 Bibliography Caldwell, Helen. The Brazilian Othello of Machado de Assis: A Study of Don Casmurro. U of California P, 1960. The first book-length study in English to deal with Machado de Assis. Focuses on his masterpiece Dom Casmurro and shows how Machado de Assis apparently utilized a modified version of Othello’s plot structure. Also discusses numerous other examples of the influence William Shakespeare had on Machado de Assis’s work. Caldwell was the first critic to argue that the novel’s heroine, Capitu, was not necessarily guilty of adultery, as generations of readers had assumed. Caldwell, Helen. Machado de Assis: The Brazilian Master and His Novels. U of California P, 1970. A concise survey of Machado de Assis’s nine novels and his various narrative techniques. Also includes good discussions of his primary themes, a useful bibliography, and some comments on his plays, poems, and short stories. Dixon, Paul B. Retired Dreams: Dom Casmurro, Myth and Modernity. Purdue UP, 1989. Portrays Machado de Assis as cultivating a radically new style of writing, one that featured ambiguity as the most “realistic” aspect of language and that conceived of language as a system of tropes only arbitrarily connected to physical reality. Suggests that Machado de Assis was critical of his society’s patriarchal codes and that the relationship between the novel’s two major characters (Bento and Capitu) implies the virtues inherent in a more matriarchal approach to sociopolitical organization. Douglas, Ellen H. “Machado de Assis’s ‘A Cartomante’: Modern Parody and the Making of a ‘Brazilian’ Text.” MLN, vol. 113, no. 5, 1998, pp. 1036–55. Discusses the story’s introduction of an act of modern parody; argues that this act of parody occurs in its intertextual opening, which features a reference to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Fischer, Sibylle Maria. “Geography and Representation in Machado de Assis.” Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 2, 1994, pp. 191–213. Discusses geography and representation in the fiction of Machado de Assis. Argues that his narratives respond to the interplay of three factors: a postcolonial nationalism with a strong desire for self-representation, a displaced “high culture” maintained through continuous transfer of literary and cultural products from Europe to Brazil, and social and economic structures unlike those of any relevant European country. Fitz, Earl E. Machado de Assis. Twayne Publishers, 1989. The first English-language book to examine all aspects of Machado de Assis’s literary life (his novels, short stories, poetry, theater, critical theory, translations, and nonfiction work). Also includes sections on his life, his place in Brazilian and world literature, his style, and his themes. Features an annotated bibliography and argues that Machado de Assis—largely because of his ideas about the connection between language, meaning, and reality—is best appreciated as a modernist. Fitz, Earl E. Machado de Assis and Female Characterization: The Novels. Bucknell UP, 2015. Studies Machado de Assis’s portrayal of women in his novels, arguing that he had a particular interest in female characterization, which he increasingly used to reflect the emergence of a new social consciousness in Brazil. Gledson, John. The Deceptive Realism of Machado de Assis: A Dissenting Interpretation of Dom Casmurro. Francis Cairns, 1984. With a focus on Dom Casmurro, argues against interpreting Machado de Assis either as a modernist or as a precursor of the New Novel in Latin America and in favor of regarding him as a master (if unique) realist. Sees him as a subtle and artful stylist whose work accurately reflects the prevailing social and political tensions of his time. Graham, Richard, editor. Machado de Assis: Reflections on a Brazilian Master Writer. U of Texas P, 1999. Critical Reflections on Latin America Series. Includes essays by John Gledson, Daphne Patai, and Sidney Chalhoub, among others. Jackson, K. David. “The Brazilian Short Story.” The Cambridge History of Latin American Literature, edited by Robert González Echevarría and Enrique Pupo-Walker, vol. 3, Cambridge UP, 1996, pp. 207–32. Discusses Machado de Assis’s technique of suggestions and implication within an ironic frame of reference. Suggests that his humor and irony underline the futility of human conflict in a world in which the nature of reality is illusory. Points out that he eschews naturalist explanations and uses complex narrative strategies. Maia Neto, José Raimundo. Machado de Assis, the Brazilian Pyrrhonian. Purdue UP, 1994. Part 1 explores Machado de Assis’ first phase (1861-1878)—from writing essays to stories to his first novels. Part 2 concentrates on his second phase (1879-1908), with separate chapters on The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, Dom Casmurro, and later fiction. Includes detailed notes and bibliography. Nist, John. “The Short Stories of Machado de Assis.” Arizona Quarterly, vol. 24, 1968, pp. 5–22. Hails Machado de Assis as not only a great novelist but also perhaps the outstanding prose fiction writer of either North or South America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Surveys a number of his most celebrated stories, including “The Psychiatrist,” “A Woman’s Arms,” and “Midnight Mass.” Also notes the economy of means that marks the author’s style, the ironic and philosophic base of his fiction, his alleged “pessimism,” and the modernist ethos inherent in his ambiguous vision of human reality. Nunes, Maria Luisa. The Craft of an Absolute Winner: Characterization and Narratology in the Novels of Machado de Assis. Greenwood Press, 1983. An excellent study of Machado de Assis’ novelistic techniques, his skill at characterization, and his primary themes. Offers good summaries of his novels and shows both how they compare to one another and how their author grew in sophistication and skill. Argues that the essence of Machado de Assis’ genius, like that of all truly great writers, lies in his singular ability to create powerful and compelling characters. Schwarz, Roberto. “The Historical Meaning of Cruelty in Machado de Assis.” Translated by Sabrina E. Wilson, Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 2, 1996, pp. 165–79. Discusses the historical meaning of cruelty as represented in Machado de Assis’s Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas.

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