In the novels of Machado de Assis, or at least the four I have read so far, Brazilian slavery is taken for granted. I have been startled, at times, by the lack of criticism of slavery. See the episode in the center of The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, for example, where the narrator comes across a man beating a slave in the street, and the violent master turns out to be a slave freed by the narrator! There is an irony here, but more about human nature than slavery. Is it relevant that Machado had grandparents who were slaves?
Machado is working on voice and psychology in the novels and his great subject is egotism, not so well suited to social crusading or even to Huckleberry Finn. His short stories are different, and there is one, “Father versus Mother,” where the tone is a little more critical. Just a little:
Slavery brought with it its own trades and tools, as happens no doubt with any social institution. If I mention certain tools, it is only because they are linked to a certain trade. One of them was the iron collar, another the leg iron. There was also the mask of tin plate.
That’s the first paragraph of the story. He sounds like no one so much as Victor Hugo. Machado spends five more acidic paragraphs on these tools and their purpose:
A half-century ago, slaves ran away frequently. There were many slaves, and not all of them liked slavery. It happened sometimes that they were beaten, and not all of them liked being beaten.
The story is about a poor man who makes his living catching runaway slaves, “one of the trades of the time,” in Rio de Janeiro. He marries when times are good, but his wife is pregnant when times are bad. Perhaps the couple will have to “carry the child that was soon to be born to the Wheel of abandoned babies.”
Machado squeezes as hard as he can. The father, the slave catcher, gets a hot lead on a high-reward runaway while carrying his baby to the foundling hospital. The runaway slave is, he finds, pregnant. Thus, the cruel dilemma – which baby to save? – except that there is no dilemma, even as the story takes a worse turn. The slave catcher saves his own baby; the slave catcher catches the slave. That’s that. What else did I expect?
Again, it would be strange, out of place, to hear the self-absorbed narrators of Machado's novels worry much about justice or abolitionism. But those narrators are not Machado.
“Father versus Mother” led Machado’s 1906 short story collection, but was presumably also published earlier. Quotations are from the Helen Caldwell translation, available in The Psychiatrist and Other Stories and Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story. Another version is in A Chapter of Hats and Other Stories.