Reading Rio de Janeiro
Literature and Society in the Nineteenth Century
Zephyr Frank



The Brazilian Bildungsroman

The Brazilian Bildungsroman evoked the cultural experience of an emerging capitalist modernity in the country during the second half of the nineteenth century. This version of modernity was as incomplete and fragmented as the characters in these novels, and it drew its force from financial capital and bourgeois values while sharing space and power with older forms of commerce and older systems of social and cultural mores.1 The master themes of the genre—youth, education, self-determination, and socialization—are at the center of cultural formation.2 Transposed to the plane of social and cultural history, the bildungsroman provides vital evidence regarding two poles of historical experience that are notoriously difficult to connect: individual, everyday, ad hoc, tactical, idiosyncratic choices; and the structural, social forces that buffet and shape individual and collective trajectories. Choices and forces: micro and macro. Choices and forces seen, predominantly to be sure, from the point of view of members of or aspirants to the middle or upper reaches of society. In this kind of novel, as E. M. Forster observes wryly in Howards End, the very poor are “unthinkable” as protagonists.3 A limited view and a partial history, then. Not fit for every taste.

Even so, the genre leaves the historian a lot to work with. As Franco Moretti points out, the nineteenth-century bildungsroman held the individual and the collective in a delicate balance.4 For this brief period, the middle and upper classes could see themselves reflected in the bildungsroman as neither masters nor the mastered. Individuality and socialization were knitted together in a complex give-and-take; the dominance of institutions and the nation-state still loomed over the edge of the horizon, although the world was already saturated in capitalist relations of production and consumption. If the purpose of the bildungsroman is to reconcile the individual to the world, what were the terms of this reconciliation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s imperial capital? Asking this question opens up an ample field of research: What are the primary signposts associated with growth, maturity, and socialization? What trajectories do the men and women depicted in the novels follow? What aspects of the world, spatial and material, provide the opportunities and constraints facing these characters? In what ways does the dance between the individual and society go catastrophically wrong? These are fundamental questions, to which we can turn to literature for answers.

Literature and History

Everything in the relationship between literature and history hinges on the questions we ask. Literature speaks to history directly and eloquently when we ask questions regarding the relationship of the individual to society—questions of a biographical nature. What was it like to live as a certain kind of person in a particular time and place? More important, what was it like to live a life over time in a past place? Historians ask many other questions, which the literature of Bildung answers only by illustration and texture. These questions touch on the development and activity of the police, the ebb and flow of politics, the discourse and practice of public health, and thousands more topics hinted at in Forster’s bald assertion that the poor are unthinkable as protagonists in forming independent social identities—the subject matter of Howards End. These kinds of historical processes are not questions posed directly by novels of Bildung, although they certainly appear as part of the general context of life, the backdrop for the choices and forces relating to the protagonist. In this way we perceive the distance between social and political history, as it is usually practiced, and imaginative literature, as it is normally read.

Yet literary history and the archive of imaginative prose are not restricted to the domain of culture. The question of the individual and society touches politics and the economy at every point in these novels. Indeed, it is the holistic depiction of human experience and the connection between individual agency and fate and historical structure and process that marks out the realistic novel as the preeminent source for answers to abiding historical questions. The key is to start with the right questions, to start with the problems and answers posed in novels read historically. Character, plot, and language come first; history follows. Accordingly, in this book I seek to reverse the terms of analysis normally associated with historical writing. Rather than begin with conventional historical problems, I begin with literary problems. The novels set the terms, and the historian interprets and accommodates them. History, then, is treated as a source for literature rather than the other way around.

With this shift in perspective, literature regains its autonomous force. It is not an imaginative mirror of the historical past to be fact-checked against a conventional archive. Instead, literature poses and attempts to answer problems of deep historical interest, but it does so for its own coherent purposes, not as ersatz history. Specifically, it does this in the nineteenth-century novel, as Bakhtin suggests, through “the assimilation of real historical time and the assimilation of historical man that takes place in time.” Not all novels, to be sure, but particularly novels of emergence through experience—“man in the process of becoming.”5

If we read the right novels, we follow the development or, more often than not in the late nineteenth century, the underdevelopment of the protagonist in a rich and complex dance with time, with history. Following the lead provided by literary historians, it is possible to read novels as answers to conundrums of historical structure and change, viewed through human-scale hermeneutics of plot and language. How to live and how to fit in? Imperatives posed as questions. Thus, as the literary historian Joshua Esty argues, the bildungsroman in societies undergoing change takes on a particular cast. It becomes the vehicle for exploring failed development, the impossibility of fitting in.6 Or, to extend Roberto Schwarz’s metaphor: misplaced lives in addition to misplaced ideas.7 Misplaced but belonging, incoherently coherent in historical time—the oxymoron of capitalist modernity.

This experiment in literary-historical analysis begins by focusing on novels written by three of Brazil’s canonical authors. Each writer poses a similar set of questions yet provides very different answers to the possibility of integration of the individual in a changing society, because this relationship was particularly unstable between the 1840s and 1880s, when these novels are primarily set. Brazil posed particular challenges to the integration of the protagonist through growth and experience. It underwent a profound capitalist transition and at the same time occupied a peripheral position in an emerging global economy. It was home to the only lasting monarchy in the Americas, yet it was also ruled by a constitution inflected with the currents of liberalism and the Enlightenment. It was a nation filled with a recently coined aristocracy invented out of whole cloth (sometimes titles were simply purchased) and often involved in commerce (bourgeois aristocrats?) yet without the roots of heredity for sustenance. It was a slave society gradually losing all its slaves. The fractures in national historical time ramified inside and out, disrupting the possibility for narratives that reconcile individuals to a coherent chronotope of idealized progressive national time. Space and time were out of joint, and the protagonists could not fit in.

Following Bakhtin, one can conceive of the Brazilian bildungsroman of this period as grappling with a fractured national chronotope, where the protagonist “emerges along with the world and reflects the historical emergence of the world itself . . . no longer within an epoch, but on the border between two epochs, at the transition point from one to another. . . . This transition is accomplished in him and through him.”8 Such a transition, if it is distorted or blocked, reflects the nature of that historical discontinuity between epochs. It describes an incomplete process of transition in a peripheral capitalist society.

Growth and transformation are always problematic, even in a classic bildungsroman, such as Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. In Brazil, during the latter part of the nineteenth century, our authors suggest that for many individuals, cutting across gender and class lines, these problems of growth and integration were nearly insurmountable. Thus, the novels in question are filled with failed promises, delayed reckonings, unconsummated relationships, and incomplete socialization, all of which calls to mind Esty’s category of unseasonable youth, found in novels of failed Bildung. For Esty, the coherent container of national time is disrupted by capitalist transformations that take place on a global scale. Individuals cannot be reconciled to a national time that has burst its bounds, whether internally, as he deduces in his reading of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, or externally, as at the fringes of empire in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.9

The approach I take in this volume is comparative and holistic. Rather than isolate a particular author or book, I focus on a genre and an overarching problem: the growth of the individual and his or her integration into society. A particular kind of society existed in Rio de Janeiro in the latter half of the nineteenth century—one in which both capitalism and bourgeois norms were ascendant—but it was also a slave society shot through with the residue of colonialism, the ancien régime. In this, I adopt a position suggested by the Brazilian critic Roberto Schwarz and consider the degree to which the Brazilian bildungsroman addresses or is otherwise marked by these contradictions.10 Following Antonio Candido, the Brazilian master of literary sociology or the sociology of literature, I ask not only how these novels correspond to an underlying social reality (an important question, no doubt) but also how the social is manifest as an internal dimension of the novel.11 The social reality, however necessary and useful for historical purposes, is largely limited by its empiricism to registering correspondence and furnishing illustration and color to history. The internal social dimension is inherently interpretive. It engages with questions of power, structure, and agency, as expressed in the logic of character and plot, and it allows for the field of analysis to embrace the individual and the social in an integrated fashion. In this sense, rather than hold a mirror up to an external world, I argue that by internalizing critical elements of the social field, the novel brings society inside.

My subjects are the novels of José de Alencar, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, and Aluísio Azevedo—the three A’s. Without question, Machado is the “great” novelist in the trio. Stylistically inventive, ironic, and sarcastic, Machado’s books can still surprise in the twenty-first century. Because of this fertility, there is an ever-lengthening shelf of books and articles that focus on him: Machado the sociologist,12 Machado the economist,13 Machado the historian.14 The Stanford library lists 335 books with Machado de Assis in the subject field. If, in this study, I can manage to say anything new about Machado de Assis, this alone will have made the effort (of writing; I leave the rest of the judgment to the reader) worthwhile.

Of the other two writers, Alencar is best known for his historical novels, such as O Guarani and As Minas de Prata (in which he attempts in the vein of Walter Scott to write the origins of the Brazilian nation), and for his mythmaking indigenista novels, such as Iracema.15 He is also generally credited, along with his contemporary Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, with introducing the genre of the novel in Brazil. Less well-known, though by no means obscure, are his urban novels, which genuflect to Balzac, not Scott, and offer a rich depiction of life in Rio de Janeiro in the 1850s–1870s.

Last among this trio, Azevedo’s fiction is marked by a strong commitment to Naturalism. If Balzac was Alencar’s model, Zola is the master in Azevedo’s universe. Azevedo is known best for his novel O Cortiço, sometimes translated as “the slum,” though this is hardly an adequate word to capture the gist of Azevedo’s subject. O Cortiço is a staple on reading lists in Brazil, but it is an earlier work, O Coruja, to which I turn to find Azevedo’s version of the bildungsroman.

At the risk of oversimplification in the service of intelligibility, our Brazilian novelists’ temperaments follow a sequence, which is, after all, historical: Balzac, Flaubert, Zola.16 Alencar sought to capture his society in all its variety. He wrote urban novels and rural novels: an attempt at an abbreviated Brazilian Comédie humaine, though Alencar clearly lacked what Henry James referred to as Balzac’s “appetite of an ogre for all kinds of facts.”17 It is not so much a lack of detailed descriptions of dress and interiors, particularly in the urban novels. What is missing is the obstinate desire to see through things and describe how they work in great detail. In Alencar’s novels, the world of work, of manufacture, of retail, of construction, is largely absent. Given Alencar’s manifest project of narrating the reconciliation of traditional (provincial) virtue and capitalist (metropolitan) modernity, this absence is telling. A critical term is missing from the equation, and this forces Alencar to place greater emphasis on the role of individual character and to underplay the actual workings of the world that the individual must conquer to be redeemed.18 The contrast with Azevedo’s Naturalism is stark in this respect, and it is the struggle for meaningful work and the social mobility that it entails that distinguish O Cortiço and O Coruja from the field.

Machado was more tightly wound and much more stylistically creative than the other two authors contemplated here. His mature novels are cynical and elliptical eviscerations of human frailty and social stupidity. They possess a bit of the spirit of Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet and the Dictionary of Received Ideas. Lukács, in characterizing Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, might as well be describing the title character and structure of Machado’s Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas.

No attempt is made here to counteract the disintegration of outside reality into heterogeneous, brittle and fragmentary parts by some process of unification or to replace absent connections or valences of meaning by lyrical mood imagery: the separate fragments of reality lie before us in all their hardness, brokenness and isolation. The central figure is not made significant by means of limiting the number of characters, by the rigorous convergence of the composition on the centre, or by any emphasis upon the central character’s outstanding personality: the hero’s inner life is as fragmentary as the outside world, his interiority possesses no lyrical power of scorn or pathos that might set it against the pettiness of reality.19

Yet Machado goes further. By shuffling the sequence of time and adopting a first-person narrative style, he further underscores the brittle, fragmentary consciousness of Brás in the face of the “unique and unrepeatable stream of life.” Just as in Frédéric Moreau’s Paris of the 1840s, the Rio de Janeiro of a similar period narrated in Memórias Póstumas is crosscut with economic, social, and political currents, which fragment the world and disrupt any possibility of easy integration into homogeneous national time. The fractured narration of the defunct protagonist serves to emphasize the way the pieces of the puzzle can fit, but only badly.

The difference between the novelistic worlds of Alencar and Machado mirrors, in profound ways, the difference between Balzac and Flaubert. In Alencar, as Vargas Llosa has noted in his reading of Balzac, “The imagination of humanity is still capable of making its dreams come true and of renewing life.” In contrast, for both Machado and Flaubert, “Imagination is a crime that reality punishes by breaking those who try to live their dreams.” In this regard, Vargas Llosa suggests “Balzac finds life logical while Flaubert finds it absurd.”20 As we will see in Chapters 1 and 2, both positions have merit in the context of nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro.

Finally, in yet a third register, Azevedo’s fiction evinces the values and limitations of Naturalism. Characters come to represent types, the individual fades into the background, and the social dominates. In this, Azevedo follows the path set out by Zola: “We must work with the characters, the emotions, the human and social facts, as the chemist and the physicist work with matter, as the physiologist works with living bodies. Determinism dominates everything.”21

Azevedo’s debt to Zola was such that he was at times accused of plagiarizing the master’s plots. Some critics find in O Cortiço a virtual copy of the basic elements of L’Assommoir.22 I leave the literary detective work to the experts. In any case, my quarry is different. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that I really do not care a whit whether most of these novels are copies. In fact, I would be disappointed if they were not. What Azevedo’s fiction allows us to perceive is a third argument posed by literature with respect to the problematic individual and his or her integration into society. If in Alencar, choices are tragic, and in Machado, capricious or absurd, then in Azevedo, they are largely determined.

This volume is divided into two parts. First, I analyze three novels in detail: Alencar’s Sonhos d’Ouro, Machado’s Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, and Azevedo’s O Coruja. These novels were published first in newspapers, in 1872, 1880–1881, and 1885–1887, respectively, and then in book form. Of the three, Sonhos d’Ouro and O Coruja are unquestionably novels in the tradition of the bildungsroman.23 Memórias Póstumas is notoriously hard to pin down, but it shares enough elements of the genre—namely, the story of a central character’s youth, education, and insertion into society—to warrant inclusion for my purposes. In this compressed period of the 1870s and 1880s the bildungsroman registers a profound engagement with the structure of Brazilian society. If, as Doris Sommer argues, the middle years of the nineteenth century were the time of national novels—those romances of consolidation and sexual-political reconciliation—then the last three decades of the century were the time of Bildung, narrating the integration of the individual into this problematic new national society.24

Of the three novels selected, only Memórias Póstumas is truly well-known and widely read; it is considered the single most important work of fiction in the Brazilian canon.25 Each novel is given an extensive gloss in conjunction with the analysis, providing, it is hoped, sufficient material for readers to orient themselves to the plots, characters, and basic structural properties of each book. Although two of the three books are little known and more seldom read, it is my hope that by describing them in detail and by analyzing their distinctive answers to the problem of social integration, readers will be inspired to pick them up and learn from them as I have. I have chosen to analyze three novels by three canonical authors precisely to allow for triangulation among different points of view and distinct aesthetic commitments.

In the second and concluding part of the volume, Chapters 4 through 6, I broaden the scope to include the whole novelistic oeuvre of each author, with additional references to other novelists, Brazilian and otherwise, and I attempt to show the full range of possible trajectories, material conditions, and successful (or unsuccessful) processes of reconciliation between individuals and their changing society. In this respect, I seek to show how reading certain Brazilian novels alongside major European works can throw light on the aesthetic choices and antecedents discernible in the Brazilian works.

But there is more to the comparison than this. Through these parallel readings, we also see depictions, mutatis mutandis, of universal struggles to imagine the integration of youth into society under the changing and unsettling conditions of nineteenth-century capitalism. In this sense the Brazilian novels are far more than mere copies of European novels transposed uncomfortably to the tropics; rather, they are aesthetic and historical contributions to world literature worth reading alongside such books as Balzac’s Lost Illusions or Eliot’s Middlemarch. The corollary: In order to read Brazilian novels in their full artistic and historical context, we need to read L’Education Sentimentale, Tristram Shandy, and their ilk. There is a further advantage to be gained in this procedure: familiarity. Even if one has not read Sonhos d’Ouro, one has probably read Balzac and, taken together, the analysis of the one and the familiarity with the other will, it is hoped, make the arguments in this book both meaningful and accessible.


1. In using the term modernity in this context, I follow the path staked out by David Harvey in Paris.

2. Moretti, Way of the World, 15. See also Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders, for a lucid statement of the role of literature in generating “consent” in a complex and unstable world through its ability as a middle term to function “in training us without our being aware of it for an unending task of mediation and conciliation” (40). For a classic statement regarding the bildungsroman and the theme of social integration, see the discussion of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister in Lukács, Theory of the Novel, esp. pt. 2, ch. 3.

3. With his typical blend of the laconic and aphoristic, Forster writes in Howards End, “We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet” (43).

4. Moretti, Way of the World, 233.

5. Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 19.

6. Esty, Unseasonable Youth, esp. 202–14.

7. See Schwarz, Misplaced Ideas.

8. Bakhtin, Speech Genres, 23.

9. Esty, Unseasonable Youth, Introduction and chaps. 2 and 3.

10. Schwarz, Ao Vencedor as Batatas; and Schwarz, Um Mestre na Periferia.

11. Candido, Literatura e Sociedade, 15, 18–19, 25.

12. Faoro, Machado de Assis.

13. G. Franco, Economia.

14. Chalhoub, Machado de Assis.

15. For Alencar’s fascination with Scott, see Vasconcelos, “Figurações do passado,” 21–22.

16. The pairing of Lusophone writers Alencar and Azevedo with their Francophone masters, Balzac and Zola, will raise no eyebrows. These can be taken as given. Machado and Flaubert? Not so obvious. Machado, after Memórias Póstumas, really defies characterization. The search for literary antecedents in Machado can easily slip into a rather pointless game of hide-and-seek, where the Brazilian author dashes first behind one and then another European master until we become completely disoriented. Reading Helen Caldwell’s otherwise fine study Machado de Assis generates a bit of this sensation—we get Dickens, Sterne, and Le Sage all in a few pages and throw in Tom Jones for good measure (75–77). In likening Machado to Flaubert, I am not suggesting that they are similar in style or that Machado was consciously copying the French master. Rather, I am attempting to place them in a common frame of literary history, a frame in which the sequence and temperament rather than the direct literary borrowings are what matter.

17. James, Notes on Novelists, 113.

18. Alencar’s near contemporary Alberto Blest Gana worked along similar lines, albeit from a liberal rather than conservative political standpoint. Blest Gana’s masterpiece, Martín Rivas (1862), tells a similar story of a young man from the provinces finding his way in the metropolis, falling in love with and winning the heart of the daughter of a rich man, and melding the virtue of the country to the dynamic but morally unsettled city. As with Alencar, Blest Gana’s Chilean version of the bildungsroman suggests that the problem lies not in the emerging bourgeois capitalist order but in the character of the people at its commanding heights.

19. Lukács, Theory of the Novel, 124–25.

20. Vargas Llosa, Perpetual Orgy, 123. For examples of characters whose dreams are crushed by reality, consider in particular Rubião in Machado’s Quincas Borba and Capitu in his Dom Casmurro.

21. Zola, “The Experimental Novel,” in Weber, Movements, 187.

22. For this controversy, see Pardal Mallet, Gazeta de Notícias, May 22, 24, and 26, 1890 (reprinted in Azevedo, Ficção completa, 1: 83–89); countering the claim that Azevedo copied Zola, Araripe insists that he had his own distinctive style (Obra Crítica, 2: 90).

23. In one of the few works concerning Azevedo’s O Coruja, Maria Aparecida Viana Schtine Pereira classifies it explicitly in the category of the bildungsroman (“‘O Coruja’ de Aluísio Azevedo”). Her reading of Brazilian literary history diverges from my own inasmuch as she argues that the novel of growth is otherwise generally lacking in Brazil. This disagreement is a matter of definition. I choose to define the bildungsroman broadly along the lines marked out by Moretti. In other respects, I have found her study of O Coruja extremely illuminating.

24. Sommer, Foundational Fictions, 15–16, 30.

25. Alencar’s Sonhos d’Ouro remains in print in a variety of formats. Azevedo’s O Coruja is out of print; the last stand-alone edition I was able to track down was published in 1973. However, O Coruja is available in the recently published Ficção Completa de Aluísio Azevedo (2005). In the case of all three novels I discuss, references are to the definitive complete works of each author published by Aguilar. Readers who wish to access these works free of charge will find them at the following websites (as of December 2014):