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Masterpieces of Realism and Naturalism in Brazilian Literature

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Originating as a reaction against the excessive idealization, subjectivity, and sentimentality of Romanticism, the Realistic and Naturalistic artistic movements –initiated in France – dominated the second half of the 19th century. There are differences between the two, but both emphasize, especially in novels, an organic approximation between the events depicted in the story and the common facts of real life, preaching a more detached role of the writer in the creation process, where a close relationship between cause and effect must dictate the fate of their characters. 

Where Realism focused on the small tragedies of daily life, the psychological traits of individual characters, and the strong link between their decisions and the consequences and of their acts, Naturalism went one step further, aiming to reproduce science in stories. Therefore, Naturalistic writers treat their characters, usually represented as groups of people, as "human beasts" (Zola) whose actions are predetermined by natural and social conditions beyond their control. The acknowledgment of the power of heredity and the Darwinist theory of evolution (survival of the fittest) also play an important role in Naturalistic novels.

Both Realism and Naturalism had a strong influence on the works of Brazilian writers of the time, who adapted the principles of those movements to the local context. Here are four of the major novels of the period, all set in Rio de Janeiro,  written by some of the greatest Brazilian authors.

Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, The

Considered by many critics to be the most accomplished writer of Brazil and maybe of Latin America, Machado de Assis published this watershed work in 1881. Going beyond Realism, anticipating traits of modernist or even post-modernist novels, these peculiar memoirs are written from the perspective of a rather unconventional narrator: the protagonist – who is already dead, scribbling those pages directly from the afterlife. This condition – claims the deceased author –supposedly liberates the narrator from any qualms about being entirely truthful about the facts he talks about. 

As Brás Cubas has already passed away, he doesn’t care about hurting anyone’s feelings, nor does he bother to take into consideration what the reader – with whom he constantly interacts in hilarious passages – might think about him. 

The language and form are packed with references to the whole of Western literature, using lots of digressions, witticisms and reflections. These have the power to transform this account of a trivial and unadventurous life of a member of the Brazilian elite living at the end of the Empire (second part of the 19th century) into a delightful and profound piece of literary work, where irony, humor, melancholy, moral considerations and a generally pessimistic view of the human condition mingle in an unforgettable way.

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The Athenaeum

A brutal attack on the elite educational institutions of the time (which can be effortlessly extended to the present), this novel is considered by many critics to be a channel for the author to vent his own frustrations as a young student. 

Through the voice of the 11-year-old protagonist Sérgio, his unreliable narrator, Raul Pompeia lashes out at the oppression and hypocrisy of the school system, depicting (or reliving) the typical traumatic experiences that more sensitive souls endure in such repressive and fraudulent surroundings. 

On the other hand, towards the end of the novel, we get to hear, in a teachers’ speech, a reasonable justification for the hard time the students are given at the boarding school; they need to have their souls tempered in that microcosm of society before facing the rigors of the real world. 

Written in sophisticated and refined language – a far cry from the more colloquial, direct and informal register employed by his contemporaries such as Aluísio Azevedo and Lima Barreto – The Athenaeum, as a novel, is difficult to pigeonhole into a neat literary movement, though the story clearly contextualizes Darwinian theories of the survival of the fittest and the deterministic power of the environment, which allows us to categorize it as a naturalistic work of fiction. The Athenaeum was published in 1888.

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The Slum

One of the most successful novels of the Brazilian canon since its publication in 1890, The Slum remains very popular, and is still produced in a range of editions in all kinds of formats. Here we have maybe the best representative of a Naturalistic novel written in Brazil. 

In the same vein as Zola’s Germinal, the main character of the novel is the group of people who inhabits a slum in the Rio neighborhood of Botafogo. This beehive (a very Naturalistic way of describing human communities) of small, cheap houses was slowly built and developed on the lot at the back of the tavern and house of the ambitious and unscrupulous Portuguese immigrant João Romão, who, with the help of the freed slave Bertoleza, his current maid and lover, worked “ from sunup to sundown” to enlarge his property and accumulate riches. 

The houses are rented out to lower-class people, who work as washerwomen, peddlers, or stonemasons at the quarry that Romão also acquired near the slum. In the tradition of Naturalism, the novel focuses on the stories of this group of people highlighting their passions, their sexuality, their troubles and fights, and also their joie de vivre – in spite of the fact that they lack all means to ever free themselves from the degrading economic conditions under which they live. 

The novel makes constant use of metaphors and vocabulary likening humans to animals, stressing the power of biology and environment over their behavior. The violence of some characters, for example, is attributed to their racial condition as half-breeds or mulatto men. The progressive decadence of the immigrant Portuguese Jerônimo, who starts off as an energetic and dynamic foreman in the quarry, is explained by his exposure to the warm and insalubrious weather of the tropics, as well as by his surrendering to the corrupting charms of the mulatto Rita Bahiana, whose sensuality weakens his willpower, turning him into an idle drunkard.

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Sad end of policarpo quaresma, the

Initially published in installments in 1911, the novel marks a transition from Realism/Naturalism to the Pre-Modernistic artistic movement. 

The protagonist, Policarpo Quaresma, a methodical civil servant who lives with his spinsterish sister in the suburbs of Rio in the first years of the Old Republic, is a well-intentioned and rather optimistic nationalist and traditionalist. He believes that by valuing and keeping the local customs intact and pure, he, by himself, is capable of putting an end to the forces of internationalization the Brazil of the time is undergoing.

First, he writes a letter to the Parliament proposing that the national language be replaced by Tupi, the indigenous language spoken by the local tribes who lived on the coast of the country before the arrival of the Portuguese. Not surprisingly, the idea is received with such mockery and disbelief, that Quaresma suffers a nervous breakdown, being confined, for a while, to an asylum for the mentally ill. 

Recovering from the illness, Quaresma decides to move with his sister to a farm on the outskirts of the city to live a more peaceful life in contact with nature. There, however, he tries to initiate, again practically single-handedly, an agricultural reform, aiming at setting an example to his countrymen, teaching them how to make the most efficient and rational use of the fertile soil of his beloved fatherland. This results in another failure, as he cannot count on any official help to carry out his endeavor. 

Finally, he sides with President Marshal Floriano Peixoto, joining the military, to fight against the Second Naval Revolt, only to find out that the leader, contrary to how Quaresma had idealized the President, lacks the brains and military strategic mind of a Napoleon, being nothing more than an authoritarian and unskilled dictator to a barbaric country in the periphery of civilization and capitalism.

Lima Barreto is considered one of our most accomplished authors. One of his fights was for Brazilians to write in a clearer, more popular and almost colloquial Portuguese as opposed to the more classic and foreign variant used in Portugal. His attempts at mocking Brazilian society, while realistically denouncing its flaws and contradictions, made a profound mark in our literature.

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Jorge Sette is Bookwitty's Regional Ambassador for South America. His main job is to represent the company, writing relevant content for the region, recruiting contributors, contacting partners ... Show More

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