65 pages 2 hours read

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Transl. Gregory Rabassa

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1881

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Summary and Study Guide


The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881), also known as Epitaph of a Small Winner, is a novel by Brazilian author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. The narrator, Brás Cubas, sets out to compose a posthumous autobiography, chronicling his life from beyond the grave. Brás recounts his pursuit of wealth and status and his failed relationships, concluding that life is a meaningless pursuit of disillusionment. The work is known for its ironic and often playful narrative style, as well as its biting social commentary on 19th-century Brazilian society. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas is considered a classic of Brazilian literature and was pivotal in the development of Brazilian Realism.

This guide refers to the 1997 edition published by Oxford University Press and translated by Gregory Rabassa.

Content Warning: The novel depicts ableism, enslavement, suicidal ideation, miscarriage, and domestic violence, which this guide describes and discusses. Additionally, the novel uses outdated, offensive terms to describe Black people and people with disabilities, which this guide replicates only in direct quotes.

Plot Summary

After dying of pneumonia, Brás Cubas decides to write his memoirs from beyond the grave, opting to start his narrative from the end of his life: Brás dies unmarried and childless, with minimal attendees at his funeral.

Brás then shifts back to his childhood. He is a mischievous and strong-willed infant, nicknamed “Devil Child.” He recalls his cruel behavior toward enslaved servants and his father’s leniency toward him. School life offers little interest to him aside from his friend Quincas Borba’s pranks. At 17, Brás becomes enamored with Marcela, a Spanish woman who is more interested in another man. His reckless spending on lavish gifts leads his father to send him to Portugal, where he completes his studies despite subpar efforts. Returning home, he witnesses his mother’s death.

Brás meets Eugênia and is struck by her beauty and charm. Though he feels perplexed by her physical disability, which makes it more difficult for her to walk, they engage in a short affair. Soon after, Brás’s father proposes he meet Virgília, the daughter of a prominent politician who can aid his entrance into politics. Despite their close bond, Virgília marries Lobo Neves, who secures a political candidacy over Brás. His failure to secure a career in politics deeply disappoints his father, leaving him disillusioned before passing away four months later. A week after his father’s death, Brás clashes with his sister, Sabina, and her husband, Cotrim, over the family inheritance, severing their relationship.

Brás finds a renewed interest in Virgília, and they begin an extramarital affair. Reflecting on their connection, he acknowledges that their relationship did not progress earlier due to unfortunate circumstances. When he encounters an impoverished Quincas, Brás offers help, surprised at his colleague’s wasted potential. Brás’s affair with Virgília faces challenges as suspicions around them grow, leading them to secure a secluded place to meet. Virgília’s former seamstress, Dona Plácida, helps conceal their meetings despite opposing the arrangement. Brás gives Dona a large sum of money in gratitude.

As Lobo Neves prepares to assume the presidency of the province, Virgília fears a potential move. Unexpectedly, Lobo offers Brás a secretary position. However, he withdraws the nomination shortly after. Virgília is pregnant with Brás’s child, and he is filled with joy at the prospect of fatherhood, but a miscarriage shatters their hopes. Lobo receives an anonymous letter revealing their affair, altering his demeanor around Brás and leading the protagonist to resent the chaos wrought by his involvement with Virgília.

Sabina, determined to see her brother married, advocates for her niece, Nhã-loló, as a potential spouse. However, Brás remains uninterested in the prospect of matrimony. Lobo and Virgília leave the city after he becomes president, ending her and Brás’s affair.

After Virgília has left the city, Quincas, now impeccably dressed and exuding refinement, visits Brás, fervently discussing his personal philosophy, “humanitism.” Brás begins courting Nhã-loló, influenced by his sister, Sabina. Despite being from a humble background, Nhã-loló attempts to assimilate into the elite, amusing Brás. Their involvement is short-lived; she dies from yellow fever.

Brás endeavors to further his political career as a deputy, but a failed speech and proposition lead to strong opposition and his eventual loss of the seat. He feels unfulfilled and regretful about his professional career. Upon receiving a plea from Virgília, Brás reluctantly assists Dona, who dies the day after being taken to the hospital.

Driven to embark on a new career path, Brás initiates a newspaper advocating for humanitism and challenging the existing ministry. Cotrim advises him to halt publication and publicly denounce his endeavor, praising the current government. Shortly after, Brás ends the newspaper. Lobos dies, and Brás attends his funeral, feeling discomfort witnessing Virgília in mourning.

Reconciling with Cotrim, Brás engages in charitable services per his suggestion. Immersing himself in aiding the impoverished and the sick, he witnesses Marcela’s death during a hospital visit and encounters Eugênia during charity work. Following a dementia diagnosis, Quincas dies while staying at Brás’s house. Brás invents a medicinal plaster for hypochondria but succumbs to pneumonia before seeing it through. In his final moments, Brás hallucinates, embarking on a surreal journey through time. Encountering an imposing figure named Nature/Pandora, he confronts mortality’s relentless nature and life’s mysteries. Reflecting on his life, Brás laments never marrying, having children, or achieving prestige, feeling deeply unfulfilled with his life’s trajectory.

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