The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas
( modern spelling Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas
), often subtitled as the Epitaph of a Small Winner
, is a novel by the Brazilian
writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis , often known as Machado de Assis, Machado, or Bruxo do Cosme Velho , was a Brazilian novelist, poet, playwright and short story writer. He is widely regarded as the greatest writer of Brazilian literature, but he did not gain widespread popularity outside Brazil in...
Published in 1881, the novel has a unique style of short, erratic chapters shifting in tone and style. Instead of the clear and logical construction of a normal nineteenth-century realist
Literary realism most often refers to the trend, beginning with certain works of nineteenth-century French literature and extending to late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century authors in various countries, towards depictions of contemporary life and society "as they were." In the spirit of...
novel, the novel makes use of surreal
Surrealism is a cultural movement that began in the early 1920s, and is best known for the visual artworks and writings of the group members....
devices of metaphor
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., "Her eyes were glistening jewels." Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via...
and playful narrative construction.
The novel is narrated by the dead protagonist Bras Cubas, who tells his own life story from beyond the grave, noting his mistakes and failed romances.
The fact of being already deceased allows Brás Cubas to sharply criticize the Brazilian society and reflect on his own disillusionment, with no sign of remorse or fear of retaliation. Brás Cubas dedicates his book to the first worm that gnawed his cold body: "To the worm who first gnawed on the cold flesh of my corpse, I dedicate with fond remembrance these Posthumous Memoirs." (in Portuguese
Portuguese is a Romance language that arose in the medieval Kingdom of Galicia, nowadays Galicia and Northern Portugal. The southern part of the Kingdom of Galicia became independent as the County of Portugal in 1095...
: Ao verme que primeiro roeu as frias carnes do meu cadáver dedico com saudosa lembrança estas Memórias Póstumas
.) Cubas decides to tell his story starting from the end (the passage of his death, ironically caused by pneumonia
Pneumonia is an inflammatory condition of the lung—especially affecting the microscopic air sacs —associated with fever, chest symptoms, and a lack of air space on a chest X-ray. Pneumonia is typically caused by an infection but there are a number of other causes...
after inventing the "Emplasto Brás Cubas", a supposedly revolutionary medicine), then taking "the greatest leap in this story", proceeding to tell the story of his life since his childhood.
The novel is also connected to another Machado de Assis
work, Quincas Borba
Quincas Borba is a novel written by the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis. It was first published in 1891. It is also known in English as Philosopher or Dog?-External links:* '** ** ** ** ...
, which features a character from the Memoirs
(as a secondary character, despite the novel's name). It's a novel recalled as a major influence by many post-modern writers, such as John Barth
John Simmons Barth is an American novelist and short-story writer, known for the postmodernist and metafictive quality of his work.-Life:...
or Donald Barthelme
Donald Barthelme was an American author known for his playful, postmodernist style of short fiction. Barthelme also worked as a newspaper reporter for the Houston Post, managing editor of Location magazine, director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston , co-founder of Fiction Donald...
, not to mention just about every Brazilian writer in the 20th century.
Philosophy of Bras Cubas
Bras Cubas' pessimism is shown most obviously in the sub-title of the novel, Epitaph of a Small Winner
. Cubas considers his life in the manner of an accounting, finding neither any positives or negatives; but he then realises that since he has not fathered any children he has not passed on the "misery" of life any further. For this reason he considers his life a success. Assis published his work in 1881 and it is influenced by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher known for his pessimism and philosophical clarity. At age 25, he published his doctoral dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which examined the four separate manifestations of reason in the phenomenal...
, a German philosopher whose philosophical magnum opus
Masterpiece in modern usage refers to a creation that has been given much critical praise, especially one that is considered the greatest work of a person's career or to a work of outstanding creativity, skill or workmanship....
, The World as Will and Representation
The World as Will and Representation is the central work of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The first edition was published in December 1818, and the second expanded edition in 1844. In 1948, an abridged version was edited by Thomas Mann....
was first published in 1818. Schopenhauer's influence on the novel's philosophy is without doubt when one compares Cubas' description of insects and his attitude towards animals, which is a feature of Schopenhauer's philosophical outlook; and in Schopenhauer's writing he similarly uses examples from the animal kingdom to illustrate a philosophical truth (most famously that of the Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...
n Bull-ant). Assis' allusion to Schopenhauer's philosophy is also 'formal': the chapter structure of The Posthumous Memoirs
mimics that of Schopenhauer's World as Will and Representation
; Bras Cubas' "method" in the novel, specifically the practice of referring to incidents in previous chapters by the chapter number, is imitative. Schopenhauer is often referred to as the 'King' of pessimists, or the 'Philosopher of despair'; his outlook is heavily linked to that of Buddhism
Buddhism is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha . The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th...
. Yet his exceptional prose and the intelligence of his philosophical outlook has made him a major influence on many preeminent novelists and artists of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries.