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Prof Nelson também participa das reuniões executivas da LASA, da qual é Co/Presidente da Seção Brasil. Todos os continentes estão discutindo Estudos Latino-americanos, durante o Congresso.



Power and Point of View in Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis


Nelson Cerqueira

Federal University of Bahia

Academia de Letras da Bahia


            One of the most familiar techniques in the art of narration is to penetrate beyond the surface of action in order to obtain a reliable impression of the thoughts and emotions of the characters, adopting a position of narrating that will convey their thoughts and emotions to the reader. A less common technique is to work with the construction of scenarios, which provides the reader with the ability to evaluate and reorganize the elements narrated and offers the characters the possibility of narrating about themselves and others (Booth 5).

The question regarding point of view and power in any type of narrative needs to be understood in their relationship to the authorities involved in the text and their ability to established power; a potential relation present in the narrative itself and the narrator; found between the narrator and the audience. The question of narrative authority is as old as Plato and Aristotle, who discussed the mythical in which the elements narrated were validated accordingly. Greek mythology carried with it the tradition of authority, a form of power preestablished and superior to the audience. Therefore, in the aesthetic of narrated tragic, comic and philosophical text, an author was able to confer meaning to the version of the myth he was narrating and project power to influence the audience, in the sharing process of traditional power existing in everyone’s collective mind, and consequently designing a form of getting the audience involved and biased. In ancient Greece whenever the dominant class was not able to control tradition, the hegemonic intellectuals would create a new form of authority, like the history. At this stage, truth would no longer be found in myth, but in the act of registering and reshaping facts and mythical structure.

A new standpoint would be available to examine past facts with the aim of separating reality from myth, and would then become a new form of power expression. This way, truth would be taken away from common mortals, real or mythical, and granted to a different point of view representing the dominant class through an author who would reinterpret past according to new interests. There would be a shift from one point of view considered weak to an empowered one that would re-narrate the facts of myth.

Machado de Assis, in Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881), is clearly working along this tradition, avoiding the regular realist literary style of his time, and delving into experimentation with surreal devices of metaphors to render a playful narrative. Instead of maintaining the truth of the original storyteller and facts of his own life as a regular witness of facts, he shapes a new technique to subvert and introduce a new point of view, and a reinterpretation of his whole past life according to his new interested standpoint.

           Machado de Assis clearly adopts this second hypothesis, penetrating the inner reality of the characters and their relations with others to create settings, employing the uncommon point of view, and utilizing a dying character as the central consciousness and narrator of the story. My objective here is to examine structural aspects, point of view, and narrative techniques, as well as to analyze the theme of death. I am not interested in this context neither in exploring Brás Cubas’s pessimism, already present in the subtitle the Epitaph of a Small Winner, nor in Machado’s interest in Arthur Shopenhauer’s World Will and Representation, which could be a path to the question of power if I were working with the philosophical dimension of the novel. I want to discuss the relationship between the process of dying in the recollections of Brás Cubas and the reader’s receptive process of the novel’s significant elements.

            The partially disjointed and open structure of this novel consists of a series of episodes, digressions and simple story lines, and results from a style within the Western tradition associated with the journey, which is defined as a tale of adventure or a portrait of an individual presented in a linear format, but influenced by an inherent circularity. The lack of an internal coherence between the chapters—both the beginning and the end delve into the process of dying—creates an atmosphere of instability where the repetitions aim to deliver significant differences which distance Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas from the limits of a travelogue.

            Analyzing the first lines of Brás Cubas, written to his readers, Machado de Assis immediately points to possibilities of comparative literary studies and aesthetic reception of this novel by telling us that he has adopted the free style of Lawrence Sterne, already justifying possible disjointed structural questions, and anticipating critics like Guilherme Merquior, by stating in the prolog signed by Brás Cubas himself that his story is not light humor as in Sterne and could become a little sour: after all it is the story of a dead character. Actually, both Machado and Sterne develop a comic relationship with the structural tradition of the novel, and in keeping with the style of Sterne, Machado presents irreverent chapters, such as those reproducing just the words on a tombstone or the mere juxtaposition of ellipses, or simple repetition of a small language fragment like when alternating

Brás Cubas


Brás Cubas



Brás Cubas



Machado is clearly playing with the fragments

-- Outra de menos…

--Outra de menos….

--Outra de menos….

--Outra de menos….

repeated four times, as if registering a fragment of a poem by John Donne, or prophetically anticipating a concrete poetry line. The coherence of structures so fragmented is maintained by the permanence of dramati personae, pursuing the guarantee of an intended point of view.

            The narrative technique based on a free association of ideas, key to the psychic process, could not be a better choice for telling the adventures, tribulations and perceptions of the agonizing character. Machado develops a form of interior monologue, using free indirect speech, especially in episodes where Brás Cubas narrates the reactions and suggestions of Quincas Borba.

In Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, structure and point of view are techniques that are interrelated and formally interdependent. We can identify a fluctuating point of view of unhappy memories in the form of narrative fragments, controlled by the deceased Brás Cubas, who selectively recalls the memories of his life, death and everything else about the other characters that he chooses to describe and reformulate.

            In this way, structure and point of view directly influence the development and depiction of the characters. Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas is clearly a first-person narrative, though Brás Cubas cedes a voice to Quincas Borba and Virgília. In fact, Brás Cubas is more alive after his death than he appeared while living. Only when he tells his story from his own point of view, which assumes the linear and dynamic center of the novel, does the key to the enigma begin to unfold and present a solution to the conflicts. As a result, the relationship between appearance and reality becomes better situated. But the paradox of Brás Cubas is that he forges the reader’s image of others, whether defending or attacking them, in order to establish the limits of his own identity. For this reason, the existence of the other characters remains amorphous, anonymous, almost “dead,” with the exception of the mentally-imbalanced Quincas Borba, who demonstrates some power of self-narration in his design of humanness. We can therefore state, according to Jean Paul Sartre’s theory of being, that Brás Cubas dies and lives to reassess the other and reaffirm himself (L’étre et le néant, 268).

            Traditional narrative uses the past tense to facilitate the manipulation of space and fictional time to be organized by means of a coherent perspective (Mendilow, 38). In Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, the narrator uses the present tense and present-past, creating a direct interdependence between formal, thematic and temporal structures. The distance between narration and elements narrated is reduced to a minimum. The distance between the story and the audience is shortened, taking place and changing continually, like a plot in which the outcome is known from the beginning of the first chapter heading. The suspense, therefore, lies in the narrative manner, the temporal development, in the relationship between the novelistic process at the fictional level and the receptive level. Narrative time and fictional time converge and at times coincide. At the same time, the narrated past is brought into the present through the current memories of Brás Cubas, whose recollections transport the past into the present as he reshapes everyone in his overt aim of revenging.

            Of the themes in the novel, I will briefly examine two that I consider of prime importance—mental instability and death—both expressions of the experience of pain and the process of dying. According to C. S. Lewis, the reality of pain includes, among other aspects, suffering, tribulation, adversity, difficulty, physical and mental illness, and death. In Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, the pain of the narrator remains real in its universality, while the presence of humor serves to minimize the impact of this suffering. There is a constant movement between real pain and the appearance of pain with which the narrator seeks to mask it, and that allows the narrating character to inflict pain upon the other characters. In retelling his own stories, Brás Cubas reshapes his reality and injects it with the appearance of more pain and suffering than he actually experienced. The motivating force behind the retelling of his experiences involves the construction of a closed system whereby he takes revenge on each character. Brás Cubas reconsiders and uses his power as a narrator along his point of view to rewrite the stories of Marcela, Eugênia, Lobo Neves, and Virgília. These are the guilty parties responsible for Brás Cubas’s first destiny, and now he wants them not only to suffer but to become conscious of their suffering. The pain of death is what Brás Cubas wants to purge from his first world of deception and illusion. In the role of recreator of his universes, he paraphrases “the revenge of the creator” and distribute pain at random, until reaching the world of the reader, where pain and suffering take a more stable and defined standpoint.

            The audience is placed in the space between reality (previous life) and appearance (narrated life) and from there one should draw conclusions about the confrontation of ideas. In Brás Cubas, the central basis for the discussion of the problematic elements rests with the conflict between Brás Cubas and Virgília.

Virgília promised to love her husband Lobo Neves, but she lives in a world of betrayal and deception with Brás Cubas in order to affirm a love that Brás denies as existing in his memories. The conflict between reality (love) and appearance (love/hate) results from the conflict between words and deeds, or between the two meanings of the word. The word seems to bewitch the behavior and the ability to feel the dimension of the act. The act, in itself, may result in excessive and uncontrollable reactions, depending on a variety of environmental and mental stimuli, as pointed by Michel Foucault in Power: The Essential Work 3 (Penguin, 1994). Apparently there is no communication, or there is a process of miscommunication, in the relationship between Lobo Neves and Virgília. But perhaps this is part of the game of masks drawn by Brás Cubas to sway the audience in his favor, which leaves the audience with the difficult task of identifying empty words and action words, or being and not being. Brás Cubas is the corpse, the narrator, a plant, lover, rock, stain, nothing. He lives in an undefined space of being and not being, all attributed to the metaphysical uncertainty created by the narrating characters. And, as Foucault wrote, uncertainty can lead to madness.

            Brás Cubas is not a forgiving narrator and leaves no doubt about the dementia of Quincas Borba, his only friend, whose destiny was reserved for the novel’s last two pages, reminding us of Giorgio Agambem’s Homo Sacer, where the sacred and desacralized merge. Brás Cubas drives Quincas Borba mad by gradually separating the levels between the character’s being and actions: a) He can openly abandon his social obligations, separating himself from elements of integration, and redefine, without regard to outward appearances, his self in the eyes of others [the beggar in the public square]; b) He can reject the implications of his definition of himself, and attempt to create a system to avoid that his alienation be evidenced by his actions [philosophy of humanity-ism]; c) He can, in a peculiar way, embrace the self-implication of his involvement by being to himself that which others believe he ought to be. Quincas Borba was not only mad, but knew that he was mad…..he knew it, and did not rebel against the madness. A good account of definition and limits between the self and his actions in the development of madness has been developed by Erving Goffman in Asylum and Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas depicts the theme of ambiguity between appearance and reality, of sacred and not sacred, until reaching the consummation of madness. In this novel, madness is revealed in the end, and the greatest victim is the most lucid character—Quincas Borba—who, second to the narrator, is also the most rounded characters.

Brás Cubas directly proposes that sleep is a space between life and death, between sanity and madness, the limit between the self and his action, the being and not being. During his sea voyage at the beginning of his flight from Marcela, the prostitute with whom he falls in love, Brás Cubas thinks about suicide, but is affected by the ship’s captain reciting some lines of poetry: He observes: “I was alone, but the captain’s muse swept me from the gloom of dark thoughts: I preferred to sleep, which is an interim way of dying” (39). Later he tells the story of an insane man on the ship who was driven to madness by the death of his daughter, and affirms: “Imagine then an old devil, seated between two sacks, one symbolizing life and the other death” (70).

            The principal paradigm is revealed through these elements of repetition: they inhabit more the sphere of death than sleep, madness or life. All the characters look at death through the eyes of Brás Cubas who sees death through all those with whom he comes in contact. The absurdity of the situations in which he finds himself corresponds to the grotesque present in the space between life and death and to the absurd in itself as a Heideggerian being, which corresponds to the space and time between the two moments of the human condition.

If point of view is the perspective or perspectives established by an author through which the reader is introduced to characters, action, setting and events, as proposed by Abrams, then point of view is the standpoint from which the author can influence his audience, a point from which ideology and personal view can be transmitted, disseminated and even indirectly imposed. Furthermore, point of view becomes a narrative strategy to conducted power, in favor or against a dominant class, as proposed by Gramsci, or against other characters in the narrative. The author has the power of distributing point of view and knowledge, both to guide the characters and to deliver knowledge to the reader.

            In Bras Cubas, death is the most banal event to be narrated, the most commonplace situation used to foretell shocking disasters that are entirely predictable within the narrative structure. Marcela, for instance, changes from a beautiful young girl to a prostitute, who is pock-marked, sick, and finally dead. Obsession with death is so prevalent that it transcends the end of the stories: the second death of Brás Cubas points to the first, third or fourth. The reader, often sought out by the narrator of Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, finds himself circumscribed inside these repetitions, virtually transformed into a character-observer. All images of death constitute a process of agony that becomes imbedded in memory; the agony results from the impossibility of halting the approximation of the existential end. In actuality, each birth points to a death, and each death announces the extinction of species.

            These are the exact stages of Brás Cubas, the living dead, and the dead-living. The narrative portrays the agony in a state of conception. The deaths of Brás Cubas and all the others take place in order for life to return to its circular course, for death to be reborn, and return again to its natural essence of death. Everything is death in Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas: gestures, people, objects, places, creatures. Brás killing flies and ants with Virgília’s hairpin—all are images of death. Everything is subordinated to a ritual, and imperious demands become intertwined with the last wish.

            Death is inscribed in the tombstone chapter of Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas. He will kill all the characters he encounters, leaving only Virgília to read his story. Death goes on as an explicit theme throughout the novel, in the “kiss of death” (105), during sleep (38), in desire (79), in life (70, 78), in the present banishing the past (18, 22, 23, 59, 60), in the images of the mother (44, 45) and the father (61). Death also symbolizes the literary process (19, 85). Death is present in traveling (20), in alienation (21, 25, 26, 28, 46, 87, 88), and even in nothingness itself (21). Brás Cubas wrings a morbid pleasure in the face of death, and the most extreme example of this is his narration of Lobo Neves’s death (139).

            Literary critics, and at times even the author, dream of an ideal reader completely detached, free of emotional involvement, and sharing the same set of codes. While the reader neither asks for, nor is necessarily interested in, melodramatic qualities, there seems no doubt that he wishes to participate in the phenomena of fictional narration, and suspends, temporarily, his systems of belief and disbelief, with greater or lesser intensity, depending on the theme and the author’s ability to create a proficient narrator.

            When Machado de Assis conceives a story narrated by a dead person, the first thing his fictional narrator does is ask the reader to take seriously the impressions and facts that will be depicted. The reader is asked to believe that the characters with which they are brought into contact indeed possess the attributes that they appear to have; that the mission set forth will have its consequences revealed; and that the apparent facts are real facts. At this level, the basic relationship is established between the proposition of the fictional world of Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, and the world experienced by the reader. The reader will believe in some of the facts narrated by Brás Cubas while reserving the right not to believe, either wholly or partially, in other elements, and characters. This leads to the development of a system for acceptance that takes place outside the consciousness of the reader: the psychological impact between the existential experience of the fictional world and its possible points of contact with the existential experience of the reader. Within the dialectical result of these interrelations and the experiential infinitude of the reader rests the pluri-dimensionality of the meaning of the literary text.

            In Memórias Póstumas, the reader knows, from the beginning, what will happen to Brás Cubas, but because of the power granted to point of view there is an uncertainty about what he will make happen to other characters. As the narrative process requires a system of integration between the reader and the world of characters, this uncertainty is defined by the very ambiguity of the reader’s reception in relation to the events described. The perception of the implied reader is presented in the same dimension as that of the characters in action

The reader has the power to question the reason behind the fantastic return of Brás Cubas to retell stories, or may even voice doubts about the upcoming experience—namely, his unexpected return to narrate a story. However, as the storyline progresses, the reader starts to accept it because not a single character within the text questions or opposes the dying voice. Actually, the characters are in no position to object because they are technically recreated at the mercy of the narrator’ memories.

The possibility of the reader to question the feasibility of the unnatural facts has no resonance with the characters, and the only identification remains on the levels between the reader and the dead narrator. This identification derives from the convincing depiction of events rendered by Brás Cubas. Initially, the reader suspends his disbelief and doubts the experience as presented—deceased character returning to narrate stories—but he accepts with “certainty” the descriptions and digressions, within the structure of a circular narrative scheme. As Todorov has shown, these varied narrative aspects offer an inner coherence for formal and thematic structures and transform doubt into noncertainty.

Our natural tendency is to proceed with the hope that the obscure elements be clarified through the intricate association of ideas. The reader thus attempts to reorganize the structure of the text, which intensifies his disorientation and consequent involvement with Brás Cubas’ point of view and the temporarily suspended memory of the narrator. Two extremes of the absurd converge, finding the readers in the tenuous space that separates them. Thus, the obsession that exists between Brás Cubas and other mortals and their memories spills over into the neutral space of the reader.

            There exists, however, a narrative element that allows the reader to breathe between one point and another in the story, and that alleviates the psychological tension and permits a new positioning with the text: humor. In Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, we find a sardonic humor with a basis in the real, instead of in the comic spirit of fantastic narratives. Often, humor, as displayed in Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, seems to constitute a kind of absolute rebellion of adolescence, while at other times, in adult age, an almost metaphysical revolt beyond the spirit. A kind of dark humor with grotesque characters runs throughout the narrative and it constantly comes up against the bittersweet smile of the reader as he accompanies the journeys from death to life and life to death. Humorous situations are created precisely from the collision and collapse of the boundary between life and death; a breakdown between appearance and reality, between being and not being. Brás Cubas possesses a perception of the existence of Other and of being in himself, as Paul Ricoeur investigates in his writing about narrative technique. The reader starts to face gaps between words and deeds, truth and lies, as well as the certainty that these pairs are shared within a small gulf that can be narrowed to the limit; and this understanding allows the narrator/characters to place themselves between the fable and the reader, precisely in the undefined sphere of this gulf.

            The process of the narrating characters intertwines with an atmosphere of fragmentation and inconsistency in the narrative, with multiplicity and disorder in interior monologue and point of view, and within the spaces between death and life, and madness. Thematic and formal aspects interact, creating conditions for the reader to become engulfed in the descriptive world, while pushing the transfer of Brás Cubas’ bias to the cognitive world of the reader. The reader is led to the conclusion that he is immersed in a world from which his exit is threatened: the world of death or life. This is, however, a false alternative, as Brás Cubas asserts that “everything is all the same” (17). In the end, Brás Cubas discovers that “since birth death already begins, and begins to disappear as the end approaches” (124). What is really left are just negations. Nothing has been really achieved, since “when I arrived to this otherworld I found myself almost emptyhanded,” exemplifying a last negation of this chapter of negations:

-- I had no children, and wasn’t able to pass over to anyone the legacy of my misery (144).

It is thus impossible to focus solely upon the death of Brás Cubas, given that “death is precisely an event beyond the bounds of time and space that comes to rest in my own being” (Blanchot 46). The death that agonizes the mind of the reader has the power to shock and astonish, even when disguised with humor and the grotesque. The vision of death that hastens this unsettling feeling is described as a cold, almost commonplace fact. The process of repetition culminates with a difference that constitutes the profound paradigm of this novel: the approximation of death in itself. All of this journey is the result of the moment in which death moves from the Other into an image that foreshadows the reader’s own death. It comes as a relief for the reader to leave the text and to suspend the tense relationship between his systems of beliefs and disbeliefs; therefore, adopting the same strategy of the text by negating what is beyond the last line of Brás Cubas’s negations. 



. For example, see Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts.

. See Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction and Wolfgang Iser, Der Akt des Lesens and Der implizite Leser.

. I refer the reader to Ronald Wardlaugh, Reading: A Linguistic Perspective.

. See Stanley Fish, “Literature in the Reader: Affective Stylistics” in Jane Long Tompkins, Reader’s Response to Criticism.


Works Cited


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