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.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis.
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.