Reading Rio de Janeiro: Literature and Society in the Nineteenth Century

Reading Rio de Janeiro: Literature and Society in the Nineteenth Century

by Zephyr Frank


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Reading Rio de Janeiro blazes a new trail for understanding the cultural history of 19th-century Brazil. To bring the social fabric of Rio de Janeiro alive, Zephyr Frank flips the historian's usual interest in literature as a source of evidence and, instead, uses the historical context to understand literature. By focusing on the theme of social integration through the novels of José de Alencar, Machado de Assis, and Aluisio Azevedo, the author draws the reader's attention to the way characters are caught between conflicting moral imperatives as they encounter the newly mobile, capitalist, urban society, so different from the slave-based plantations of the past. Some characters grow and triumph in this setting; others are defeated by it. Though literature infuses this social history of 19th-century Rio, it is replete with maps, graphs, non-fiction sources, and statistical data and analysis that are the historian's stock-in-trade. By connecting a literary understanding of the social problems with the quantitative data traditional historical methods provide, Frank creates a richer and deeper understanding of society in 19th-century Rio.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804757447
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 01/06/2016
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Zephyr L. Frank is Professor of History at Stanford University. He is the author of Dutra's World: Wealth and Family in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro.

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Reading Rio de Janeiro

Literature and Society in the Nineteenth Century

By Zephyr L. Frank


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9730-6



JOSÉ DE ALENCAR rededicated himself to his writing after seeing his political star eclipsed — losing a ministerial post and being passed over by the emperor Dom Pedro II for senator despite receiving the most votes in his native Ceará — although he also stayed involved in politics as a member of the lower Chamber of Deputies. In 1871 the so-called Law of the Free Womb was passed on September 28. Although the law meant that henceforth no child would be born a slave in Brazil, ensuring the eventual extinction of the institution, the mothers remained slaves and their children remained wards of their mother's owners for up to twenty-one more years. This gradual emancipation scheme nonetheless drew Alencar's ire. Although no friend of slavery, Alencar was a classic conservative concerned with the protection of private property rights and the maintenance of social order. He did not hold the citizenship capacity of slaves in high esteem and believed that slaves were genuinely better off with their paternalistic masters than cut loose and left to their own devices. Alencar's novel Sonhos d'Ouro does not address the issue of slavery or property rights head on, but it can be read as an attempt to offer a solution to the problem of modernity in a prospectively post-slavery urban metropolis. The rub: Reining in the excess of the new capitalist wealth required joining the new rich to the traditional values (if not the slaveholding) of the interior.

It is against this backdrop, while Alencar was living in the hills of Tijuca, which became one of the central settings of the novel, that Sonhos d'Ouro was written. Perhaps Alencar chose Tijuca, on the mountainous rural fringe of Riode Janeiro, as his refuge after his stinging political defeats because it reminded him of happier days; he had met and courted his wife, Georgiana Cochrane, the daughter of a wealthy Englishman, in that same rural neighborhood. Certainly, life and fiction entwined.

Published in 1872, on the heels of a series of devastating personal and professional setbacks, Sonhos d'Ouro deserves to be considered among the finest novels of Alencar's career. The book recounts the story of Ricardo Nunes, a young lawyer from São Paulo, and Guida Soares, the daughter of a wealthy Rio de Janeiro businessman. Ricardo represents the virtuous but poor man marked by talent but lacking connections; Guida is the capricious and spoiled rich girl with a good heart. Bringing these two characters together, Alencar writes as an alchemist: Virtue and wealth together transmute into a golden dream.

From the start, the theme of virtue in relation to wealth is sounded out. Ricardo's first internal monologue begins:

Gold ... gold ... You reign over the world, absolute monarch, autocratic ruler of all the world's riches! You, yes, you reign and govern, without law, without opinion, without Parliament. ... Law? What law have you save for the caprice with which you toy with men?

Ouro! ... ouro! ... És o rei do mundo, rei absoluto, autocrata de todas as grandezas da terra! Tu, sim, tu reinas e governas, sem lei, sem opinião, sem parlamento. ... Lei. ... Que lei é a tua, senão o capricho com que escarneces dos homens?

These thoughts pour out of Ricardo as he rests on the side of a trail in the bucolic woods of Tijuca, drawing the outline of a golden wildflower in his sketchbook. He has come to Rio de Janeiro seeking his fortune; or perhaps it is better to say that he has come seeking to close the chapter of his youth and, upon earning the 20 contos he needs to establish a household of his own, return to São Paulo to marry and raise a family. His needs are not great. But Ricardo has no money and no connections. Amassing such a sum seems nearly impossible to him as he reclines in the grass and reflects on life. Twenty contos, he thinks, when "millionaires have paid much more than that just to have the right to a five letter name." Barão (baron). Conde (count). Four contos per letter. His needs seem small in comparison. How might one get such a quantity of money quickly? Winning the lottery, in a card game, through an unexpected inheritance. As Ricardo ponders these possibilities, he becomes aware that he is being watched. Looking up, he sees a beautiful young woman astride anArabian horse. She stares down at him. Without thinking, he kisses the golden flower he has been holding while sketching. The girl laughs. Although Ricardo senses that there is some malice in the girl's demeanor, he returns laughter with laughter. Thus Ricardo and Guida meet for the first time: poor virtue meets golden caprice. Later, Ricardo will draw Guida's beautiful figure in his sketchbook alongside the flower and discover that she is the daughter of one of the richest men in Rio de Janeiro. Critically, for Alencar's purposes, her father will be rich but scrupulously honest and humble, the antithesis of those men who paid "four contos per letter" for a flimsy title of nobility.

In Illustration 1, which was commissioned for this volume and etched in drypoint intaglio by Stephen Baird, the critical first meeting between Ricardo and Guida is presented for the reader. Guida has taken advantage of her fast horse to lose her chaperone, the prim Mrs. Trowshy. Ricardo is absorbed in a typical bourgeois pastime: taking the air in the forest and sketching a flower. Thus they meet for the first time, alone, in the poses of youth seeking experience.

In Alencar's version of the Brazilian bildungsroman, the twin paths of Ricardo and Guida represent the ways in which youthful pride and voluble caprice interact and complicate courtship and social integration. Ricardo is too proud at first to admit his love for Guida, fearing that he will appear as nothing more than another treasure hunter chasing the girl's rich dowry; Guida, unthinking, allows herself to take advantage of her situation, her power, in abusive games and pranks. Ricardo explains to his friend Fábio:

In a millionaire's house, in the midst of people accustomed to luxury and status, what kind of figure would we cut? I believe it would best be said to lie at the balance between parasite and servant; we'd be the links in the chain betwixt the two.

Em casa de um milionário, no meio de uma sociedade habituada ao luxo e às grandezas, qual seria nossa posição? Creio que a classifico bem dizendo que faríamos o ponto de transição entre o parasita e o criado; formaríamos o elo desses dois anéis da cadeia.

To which Fábio responds, "Indeed, such modesty slips into pride" ("Com efeito! Modéstia tão requintada degenera em orgulho"). Pride, then, his friend suggests, is the barrier to social progress, not to mention pretty and rich young girls. Ricardo willfully misses Fábio's point, replying, "I have my dignity, not pride" ("Não tenho orgulho, mas dignidade").

In the meantime, in contrast to the identification of Ricardo with the sin of pride, Alencar refers to Guida with the term caprice no less than twenty-five times over the course of the novel. Guida, a free spirit by upbringing and character, admits her capricious nature openly. She has been brought up to do and say as she pleases. At the midpoint of the novel, Ricardo and Guida have a long conversation while riding on horseback through the forest paths of Tijuca. Ricardo has been trying to avoid Guida but to no avail. The girl is persistent. She calls herself rash. Ricardo adds capricious and naughty (see Illustration 2). Guida replies, "What do you want from me? I am of the habit of being pleased" ("Que quer? Estou habituada a me fazerem todas as vontades!"). Ricardo, ever the serious one, responds with a sermon on the dangers of following one's whims.

Although Alencar doubtless has in mind a moral to his story — one in which it is Guida who ultimately submits to the discipline of virtue — the novel itself contains a distinct reading in which Ricardo can be seen playing an inverse role as the chaste partner in the marriage dance. This inversion springs from his need to retain his "dignity" and to make his own way in the world without the helping hand of Guida, the vile Visconde de Aljuba (a character introduced midway through the text to tempt Ricardo with easy but illicit gain), or anyone else for that matter. The central contradiction is the preservation of the spirit and one's dignity when faced with the need for money. Antonio Candido says:

The young man of talent, who in [Alencar's] books is always seeking love and social consideration, has in his path the problem of ascending in the capitalist world without breaking faith with his honor.

O moço de talento, que nos seus livros parte sempre a busca do amor e da consideração social, tem pela frente o problema de ascender a esfera do capitalista sem quebra da vocação.

Candido goes on to dismiss Alencar's solution, "marrying him off to the daughter of a rich man" ("casando-o com a filha do ricaço"), in Sonhos d'Ouroand in many other novels. This claim, given the tenuous nature of the postscript of the novel, is at best half-true. Ricardo's choice is more complex. He is caught in a double bind with commitments to his mother and his cousin Isabela that cannot be reduced to this formula. Guida adds a third dimension. Less central to the plot is the Luisinha-Fábio engagement, involving Ricardo's sister and best friend, which adds a fourth dimension.

It is not even quite true that Ricardo seeks social ascent or a place in the world of capital. His aim, the equivalent of $10,000 at the time, is a sum far below the minimum level of wealth required to enter society, whether in its economic sphere or that of the salon. Not an insignificant sum, to be sure, but far from constituting a fortune circa 1870. Alencar is, I argue, making a profound and subtle point more in keeping with Roberto Schwarz's observation regarding the impossibility of making an honest living in Rio de Janeiro at this time. The point is that a man of great talent, "top of his class," cannot, without "protection," earn a living commensurate with his abilities or, for that matter, commensurate with the incomes of mediocre businessmen or second-rate public employees. The distance from 0 to 20 contos is practically unbridgeable without sacrificing his values. Through Ricardo, Alencar asks, What kind of society is this?

The novel presents Ricardo with a series of trials. He states early on in a conversation with Fábio the dangers of succumbing to the temptation of easy money.

Gold is the touchstone of conscience; the plumb line that sounds the depths. I believe I am an honest man, but I'm not certain, because I have yet to see proof, choosing between the scruples of probity and the certain profits of a less worthy act.

O ouro é a pedra de toque da consciência; o prumo que lhe sonda a profundidade. Creio que sou um homem honesto; mas não tenho a certeza disso, porque ainda não me vi à prova, entre os escrúpulos da probidade e os lucros certos de uma ação menos digna.

Throughout the novel Alencar has Ricardo give little sermons on virtue and the value of independence in the face of these trials. Ricardo's chastity is doubled, as it reflects outward and condemns easy money gained through questionable means or marriages of convenience. The idea that easy money and corrupted marriage join to form the worst possible combination recurs in Alencar's works. In Senhora it is practically the entire plot — a man sells himself for 100 contos to a vengeful bride.

The difference between Sonhos d'Ouro and the better-known novel Senhora is worth considering here in more detail. Roberto Schwarz, in his study of the works of Alencar and Machado, dissects Senhora with skill and perception. Although he mentions other so-called urban novels from Alencar's pen, he does not cite Sonhos d'Ouro. This is an odd omission, because the novel is discussed at some length in Antonio Candido's foundational study of Brazilian literature. The fact is, Sonhos d'Ouro does not fit easily in Alencar's oeuvre, nor does it quite fit the model that Schwarz erects around his reading of Senhora. In any event, throughout Sonhos d'Ouro Ricardo holds out against all temptation, although in the end Alencar arranges a romantic solution that allows the happy ending — the wished-for marriage between Ricardo and Guida — to take place in a none-too-convincing postscript. Here we see Alencar's imagination struggling to conjure an alternative social order. The fact that the imagined world where virtue and wealth can wed is tacked on in the postscript should tell us something. Throughout the novel itself this "third" point in the triangle of desire is kept at a great distance. It is not presented as within the grasp of the characters, and it is out of reach not because society is too strong but because duty and virtue will not permit it.

Setting aside the postscript, Sonhos d'Ouro offers no easy solutions to the thorny problem of marriage between poor virtue and capricious wealth: The girl pursues the boy; virtue is tested and wins out; no immediate resolution is offered; the very boundaries of virtue, where dignity ends and pride begins, are open to question. In his interactions with Guida, Ricardo acts like a poor Mr. Darcy: He chastises her for her willfulness, shows himself master of the situation, and withdraws behind a mask of dignity. Guida, full of life, has the spark if not reminiscent of Elizabeth, then perhaps of Emma. Alencar is no Jane Austen, and Sonhos d'Ouro is no Pride and Prejudice. Alencar's chaste hero and capricious heroine lack charm and depth. Ricardo is stiff and earnest; Guida, although livelier, particularly when her exploits are recounted thirdhand, strikes the same two contrasting chords: caprice and generosity.

Even so, the fact remains that Alencar manages to evoke the intractable barrier between Ricardo and Guida in such a way that he remains true to the social realities that underpin the context of the story. Leaving aside the problematic postscript, the effect generates a genuine sense of longing in the elliptical circuits of affection closed first in the hills above Rio and then held together intermittently and realistically for the remainder of the body of the novel. Space. Longing. Impasse. These terms have to be added to the shopworn themes of provincial virtue and metropolitan vice. Money does provide the touchstone of conscience, but it neither triumphs nor fails. This is interesting in its own right, and for this reason alone Sonhos d'Ouro deserves to be considered among the highest achievements in Alencar's oeuvre.

Sonhos d'Ouro is rich in atmosphere and detailed descriptions of people and places. Alencar describes with loving care the bucolic setting of Tijuca, where Ricardo and Guida have no less than seven chance meetings. In doing so, he maps an important terrain of elite courtship: a space defined by rustic beauty and opportunities to "get lost," to escape the patriarchal gaze of fathers and their dependents. Although Alencar does not indicate this directly, it can be inferred from the construction of the novel that Tijuca is a privileged, perhaps really the only, place for a meeting, usually on horseback, between the worlds of Guida and Ricardo. The young man eventually succumbs to Guida's insistence and visits her in her father's house, but this occurs only after the seven chance meetings on the trails of the forested hillsides of Tijuca. It is there in the setting of steep trails and shady nooks that Ricardo first sees Guida and returns laughter with laughter; it is on a steep and dangerous stretch of trail that Guida's dog is knocked off a cliff after nearly causing Ricardo's horse, Galgo, to tumble down with its rider; it is in the woods of Tijuca that Ricardo shows his bravery and horsemanship in an episode in which Guida rashly attempts to descend a steep slope to pluck a golden wildflower, a sonho d'ouro.

All these chance meetings, Ricardo reflects, culminate in an effect much more powerful than any planned courtship could have obtained. By virtue of their spontaneity and their marked equality (in these occasions both characters are usually mounted on horseback) these encounters offer a space of equality, predicated on the space of the forest and the social practices of passing weekend days riding the trails, necessary for Ricardo and Guida's initial meetings and incipient courtship. To a significant degree, the combination of open space and horses cancels out the inequality in positions. This exception to the rule drawn by Candido with regard to Alencar's male protagonists' social inferiority highlights the way that different kinds of opportunities and encounters were encoded in the space of the city and its environs.


Excerpted from Reading Rio de Janeiro by Zephyr L. Frank. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface xi

Introduction: The Brazilian Bildungsroman 1

1 Sonhos d'Ouro 21

2 Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas 43

3 O Coruja 65

Interlude: The Problem of the Individual and Society 87

4 Sentimental Educations 91

5 Marriage and Money 123

6 Problems of Spatial Practice 147

Conclusion 177

Notes 185

Works Consulted 207

Index 215

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