Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Machado de Assis, slavery, and slave-catching - not all of them liked being beaten

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.


  1. I think there are four (unless I've lost count) elements to this idea of readers and social criticism in novels:

    1. The narrator's/protagonist's position in re slavery,

    2. The author's position in re slavery,

    3. The reader's position in re slavery, and

    4. The reader's expectations of the author in re slavery.

    Maybe there are more angles. It's already too complex for me. Also, for "slavery," you can substitute any social evil you like. For example, I read Lawrence's Women In Love and toward the end of the book, a couple of men engage in an antisemitic conversation. I couldn't tell if only the characters were the antisemites or if Lawrence was also. My guess is that Lawrence was a casual antisemite. Last month I read Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Chopin lived in turn-of-the-century New Orleans and she was very aware of the racial status of every character. Anyone who was not white was identified as black, mulatto, quadroon or octoroon. Black children were referred to (by the narrator, not one of the characters) as "darkies." I found all of this discomfiting but I'm not sure how I want to react to it. Anyway, this is all tangential to your post, I think.

  2. Not tangential. Right on target. I am just admitting my literary conditioning (per your 4 steps), expecting any serious mention of slavery to be accompanied by a critique, as if every writer is Charles Chesnutt or Mark Twain, or every literary tradition is the same. Ridiculous!

    The Awakening is a perfect counter-example, and perhaps a rare one. The urban setting makes it a nice parallel with Machado - published in the same year as Dom Casmurro, too!

    By rare, I mean that not much Southern literature from the 19th century is still read at all, aside from Twain. I wonder what Lafcadio Hearn's New Orleans writing is like.

  3. I think you're right on target, saying that the observation is more about human nature than about slavery. Bras Cubas can be an unpleasant person (Eugenia, the slave, several other casual examples) and so can other people. It's contagious, like smallpox, or like billiard balls that touch each other and transmit action.

    Still, I wouldn't discount the notion that the slavery is there for a purpose, the way the mild corruptions of the Catholic church are there in Dom Casmurro for a purpose.

  4. there for a purpose - yeah, you're right. Even if the novel's narrator is not so concerned with cruelty, Machado is.

  5. "Father versus Mother" had me thinking at first that the man was to fight with his wife. Then the pregnant slave appeared, and there's the story. I think slavery was put to "good use" in the story. But still the irony was biting, especially in the father's last words ("Not all babies have the luck to be born!"), which by extension could imply, "Not all men and women have the luck to be born free."

  6. Machado de Assis read Voltaire, yes? Lines like "not all of them liked being beaten" strike me as being in the style of some of Voltaire's social commentary.

    ~scott gf bailey

  7. Voltaire, definitely. There's a Machadian reference to Voltaire in today's missive.

    The ending of "Father versus Mother" is brutal, really, and rife with meaning. Very much worthy of Voltaire.