TRAINING SKEPTICAL READERS IN MACHADO DE ASSIS'S HELENA.
I will argue here for a new reading of the novel, one that may allow us to take greater interest in the text and to rethink its place among Machado's writings, based on a recent innovation in the theory of fictional narrative. Joshua Landy has argued that certain works of fiction are best understood as formative, in the sense that they offer opportunities for (suitably disposed) readers to engage in specific kinds of intellectual or mental training. This approach draws on the work of philosophers such as J. L. Austin and Ludwig Wittgenstein who call attention to language use as an action of social consequence (and not merely a transparent means of reference or representation) and that of literary theorists who stress the active participation of the reader in producing or completing the value of the text (such as Wolfgang Iser and the later Roland Barthes). Disputing the pervasive idea that the point of literary writing and reading is the transmission of propositional messages, while distinguishing his theory from a number of alternative views of the value and nature of fiction, Landy identifies a number of
texts whose function it is to fine-tune our mental capacities. Rather than providing knowledge per se--whether propositional knowledge, sensory knowledge, knowledge by acquaintance, or knowledge by revelation--what they give us is know-how, rather than transmitting beliefs, what they equip us with are skills; rather than teaching, what they do is train. (Landy 10)
Adopting the classic notion of the hermeneutic circle--in which a reader's sense of the text's meaning is refined by attention to the details of the text, which are in turn reconsidered by the light of a developing interpretation of the whole--Landy proposes a variant: the formative circle. Here, a reader's appreciation of a formative text requires a prior cognitive aptitude that is exercised and strengthened by the operations of the text so that it becomes an enduring ability or skill:
We must, that is, already be a little bit good at doing the thing in question: a little bit good at following trains of logic, a little bit good at handling figurative discourse, a little bit good at standing back from our attitudes, a little bit good at juxtaposing claim with counterclaim. It is this minimal aptitude that allows us to meet the text's first challenge--allows us, indeed, to recognize it as a challenge--and thus to begin fine-tuning our capacity. It is the fine-tuning, in turn, that allows us to do better with the next challenge, and so on through indefinite turns of the circle. (Landy 13)
Following Landy's theory of formative fictions, I suggest that Helena be read as a training text for skeptical readers: readers who examine critically the actions and pronouncements of fictional characters as well as narrators; who scrutinize claims, arguments, and evidence presented within narrative; and who will ultimately suspend judgment about dubious possibilities raised by fictional discourse. In relating Machado's fiction to skepticism, this proposal both extends and contests the work of other critics--most notably, Jose Raimundo Maia Neto, Eunice Piazza Gai, and Gustavo Bernardo Krause--who have shown the relevance of the suspension of judgment for reading Machado. However, previous analyses have tended to focus on the author's creation of skeptical characters and narrators, rather than the ways in which his writings can bring philosophical problems to life for their readers. In addition, pioneering critics have characterized Machado as involved primarily with Pyrrhonian skepticism, an ancient school of thought that advocates the deliberate suspension of judgment (epoche) as a means of attaining an intellectual tranquility or fulfillment (ataraxia) that "dogmatism"--the attitude of holding opinions and beliefs--cannot provide. In Helena, however, the suspension of judgment provoked by the narrative does not seem to be associated with the tranquility promised by Pyrrhonism, but arises as an unsettling consequence of attempting to interpret the world correctly. The reading presented here, then, finds greater complexity in Machado's employment of skepticism than has previously been acknowledged.
The novel's central conflict can be summarized, superficially, as follows. After Conselheiro Vale's death, it is discovered that his will extends legitimacy to a daughter, Helena, born outside his marriage. Following his wishes, Helena moves in with the Conselheiro's surviving relations, his son Estacio and his sister D. Ursula. Both initially have some doubts about Helena's trustworthiness, but in time she wins them both over and Estacio and Helena cultivate an incestuous love for one another. It is ultimately revealed that Helena's suspicious behavior is due to a secret: she is not after all the daughter of the Conselheiro but of another man, Salvador, whom Helena has visited surreptitiously since arriving at the Vale family home. The revelation intensifies Estacio's internal conflict with respect to his feelings for Helena, since she is not truly his sister. Finally, Helena dies and Estacio goes on to a loveless union with Eugenia instead, completing the victory of her father, the greedy social climber Dr. Camargo.
Borrowing a phrase from John Gledson, we might call the view to be presented here a dissenting interpretation of Helena. My approach hinges on the observation that although the novel is narrated in the third person, the supposed revelations about Helena's past and her relationship with Salvador are presented solely by characters within the fiction, without the corroboration or endorsement of the narrator. These revelations therefore have a different epistemic status than the third-person narration itself: because they are offered by characters within the fictional world, our acceptance of their truth or plausibility is subject to whatever limits the novel sets on the credibility of its characters. Crucially, the trustworthiness of characters in Helena is not taken for granted by the narrator or by the characters of the novel. Accordingly, the revelations made by Salvador should be evaluated like other statements made by characters in the novel, which may be true or false, sincere or deceptive. Ultimately, I suggest that the characters and readers of the novel are not justified in believing the story presented by Salvador and Helena. I do not say that the story is false or that the characters are lying, but only that other characters, and Estacio in particular, make a mistake in believing their account. And if readers follow along in accepting it, they do too. Understood as a formative fiction, we can read Helena as challenging readers to pay careful attention to the way they manipulate evidence in the formation of beliefs and to consider the pitfalls that beset their own attempts at understanding reality.
The argument begins by reconsidering Estacio's connection to mathematics and philosophy, an aspect of his character to which critics have not devoted much attention, noting how his intellectual training associates him with high standards of logical reasoning. Second, I present a number of moments in the text when the questions of whom to believe and under what circumstances are broached, showing the centrality of these concerns within the narrative. Finally, I address what the dubious status of the concluding "revelations" about Helena and Salvador and how the doubts provoked within the fictional world of the novel should figure in interpretations of the novel.
Estacio, the mathematician
John Gledson comments that "Estacio is also a mathematician, which no doubt hints at an excessively abstract and so unrealistic attitude to life" (Gledson, Deceptive Realism, 86). This is plausible enough, though Gledson declines to consider in detail why it should be obviously correct. More useful here is Jose Raimundo Maia Neto's notion of the Machadian "homem de espirito," a type Estacio more clearly represents: disciplined, somewhat naive, fair-minded, repulsed by the social, financial, political, and sexual gaming of the "vida exterior" (Machado de Assis 21-28). Though Gledson dismisses it as a "hobby", the narrator tells us that Estacio studied the discipline formally, which suggests that we should not take him as simply a dabbler. And the seriousness of Estacio's character--his principles, his ordinarily careful and polished manners--discourages us from seeing him as an absentminded professor.
Since Galileo, mathematics has been understood as the language of nature. Throughout modernity the increasing complexity and formality of mathematical reasoning has accompanied and permitted substantial accomplishments in the sciences and technology, from the development of modern calculus and its application to physics by Newton and Leibniz, to the elaboration of formal logic and its use in linguistics and computational sciences by Frege, Tarski, and others. With this in mind, Gledson's rather casual dismissal of Estacio's hobby--as an indication that the character simply has his head in the clouds--seems under-motivated. Estacio might be criticized for taking too little interest in his immediate surroundings and social environment, but the specification of mathematics as the character's chosen field of enquiry does little to sharpen the point: in fact, any hobby at all would do. Indeed, the well-known applications of mathematics to matters of obvious practical consequence make it seem a poor choice, if the point were merely that Estacio is ill-adapted for or otherwise unwilling to participate in society.
The implications of Estacio's characterization as a mathematician--not just as a man of "science" (ciencia, which in Machado's usage generally seems to mean knowledge or learning rather than empirical science, as such)--merit greater attention. Importantly, the abstract investigations of mathematics proceed by formal proof. Mathematical proofs have existed since antiquity and for centuries Euclid's Elements served as the standard text of instruction in geometry and deductive method. The truths of mathematics are generally taken to be discovered by explicit demonstration, beginning with simple axioms or postulates and proceeding with logical necessity. Indeed, the truths of mathematics are frequently understood as necessary truths (where necessity is understood as metaphysical or logical necessity), truths that must hold in all possible worlds, that are not mere accidents of the particular physical and historical circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Estacio's training in mathematics ostensibly prepares him to evaluate evidence and consider its possible relationship to a particular conclusion. This amounts to training in logic--that is, study of the principles of good reasoning. Considering Estacio's education in this fashion, it is far from clear that he should be read as devoting himself to a mere hobby of no practical consequence. To the contrary, his knowledge of mathematics should commend him as epistemically well prepared to function in the world. He ought to consider carefully the inferential procedures that guide him through social life, just as he would take caution with the proof of a mathematical theorem.
That we should hold Estacio to a high standard of rationality is not just implied by his devotion to mathematics and learning. Estacio displays his intellectual capacity, bringing it to bear on situations that arise in life. On one occasion, he criticizes Eugenia for failing to make a careful distinction between appearances and reality: "Eugenia, disse Estacio, quer saber a verdadeira razao do mau sucesso de suas afeicoes? E deixar-se levar mais pelas aparencias que pela realidade; e porque da menos apreco as qualidades solidas do coracao do que a frivolas exterioridades da vida" (Helena 288, my emphasis). Estacio's deployment of the philosophical or scientific terminology regarding appearance and reality reminds us of his education and shows that he possesses conceptual tools that ought to allow him to make careful judgments.
Later, when Estacio confronts the possibility that Helena has been conducting an illicit affair, philosophical and scientific language arise again:
Estacio examinou um por um todos os indicios de culpabilidade e de inocencia; buscou os elementos de prova; nao esqueceu um so argumento de inducao. Nesse trabalho despendeu longo tempo, sem resultado apreciavel, pela razao de que, se a sentenca era dificil de formular, o juiz era incompetente para decidir; entre a dignidade e a afeicao baloucava incerto. (Helena 356-57, my emphasis)
According to the narrator, Estacio consciously brings to bear his training in logic--he examines indices, searches for evidence, and considers inductive inferences--to come to a conclusion about Helena's guilt or innocence. Furthermore, the procedure comes up short: he is unable to decide and is forced to remain suspended in doubt. As the narrator puts it, just a few lines previously, "a pior das angustias--a duvida--continha-o todo e agitava-o em suas maos felinas" (356). We thus see that Estacio is equipped with sophisticated intellectual resources, that he attempts to apply them to life (and not merely in an abstract, "hobby" realm disconnected from the world), and that he confronts a situation in which his capacities are not sufficient to decide the truth. Readers are therefore not just licensed but perhaps even obliged to evaluate Estacio's actions and attitudes against the high standard of reasoning he apparently ought to possess. The challenge placed before the audience is to assess the extent to which he lives up to the standard. In the following section, we will see how the problem of sincerity is a central feature of the narration, setting up Estacio's epistemic trial and driving the text's formative experiment.
Helena and the Problem of Sincerity
The characters in Helena repeatedly reflect on what they ought to believe; or, perhaps more precisely, whom to believe. Moreover, the narrator frequently stages events so as to draw attention to the questions of sincerity and trustworthiness. Close consideration of this aspect reveals how suspicion and doubt shape crucial moments in the plot, only to be abandoned, quite abruptly, at the end. Readers engaged with the formative process of the novel must first face the challenge of recognizing the centrality of the problem.
The divergent dispositions among the characters with respect to Helena pose the principal conflict in the early chapters of the novel. D. Ursula is at best reluctant to accept a new member of the family, although with time she becomes increasingly fond and trusting of Helena. Estacio is presented as a noble spirit: "possuira em alto grau a paixao, a ternura, a vontade, uma grande elevacao de sentimentos" (277), thus exemplifying the "homem de espirito" character type identified by Maia Neto as appearing frequently in Machado's early works. (1) Setting aside his own financial interests, he considers only his obligation to obey Conselheiro Vale's will and the moral concern that Helena not suffer unfair treatment; as he puts it to D. Ursula and Dr. Camargo: "essa menina nenhuma culpa tem de sua origem, e visto que meu pai a legitimou, convem que nao se ache aqui como enjeitada" (279).
When Helena appears at the family residence, she is described in glowing hyperbole by the narrator as he relates Estacio's impressions:
As linhas puras e severas do rosto parecia que as tracara a arte religiosa. Se os cabelos, castanhos como os olhos, em vez de dispostos em duas trancas lhe caissem espalhadamente sobre os ombros, e se os proprios olhos alcassem as pupilas ao ceu dissereis um daqueles anjos adolescentes que traziam a Israel as mensagens do Senhor. Nao exigiria a arte maior correcao e harmonia de feicoes, e a sociedade bem podia contentar-se com a polidez de maneiras e a gravidade do aspecto. (281)
But this portrait of the romantic heroine is immediately marred by a shadow of distrust: "Uma so cousa pareceu menos aprazivel ao irmao: eram os olhos, ou antes o olhar, cuja expressao de curiosidade sonsa e suspeitosa reserva foi o unico senao que lhe achou, e nao era pequeno" (281). From their first meeting, Estacio is inclined to distrust Helena and her motivations. The narrator, who throughout the novel denies the reader access to Helena's thoughts and emotions, contributes to the air of suspicion. In an exchange among Helena, Estacio, and D. Ursula, in which Helena attempts to win the older woman's good will, the narrator intervenes and says of Helena's words: "foram ditas em tom de graciosa submissao. A voz com que ela as proferiu, era clara, doce, melodiosa; melhor do que isso, tinha um misterioso encanto, a que a propria D. Ursula nao pode resistir" (282, my emphasis). While simultaneously extolling Helena's grace, the narrator thus suggests she is manipulating the others for unknown ends, by means of the respectable manners and rhetorical cleverness that commend her as an educated young woman.
The ensuing pages consolidate this impression of Helena. The narrator informs us that in the space of a few weeks Helena shows herself to be extremely adaptable to different situations and perfectly poised under pressure:
O que a tornava superior e lhe dava probabilidade de triunfo, era a arte de acomodar-se as circunstancias do momento e a toda a casta de espiritos, arte preciosa, que faz habeis os homens e estimaveis as mulheres. [...] Era pianista distinta, sabia desenho, falava correntemente a lingua francesa, um pouco a inglesa e a italiana. Entendia de costura e bordados e toda a sorte de trabalhos feminis. Conversava com graca e lia admiravelmente. Mediante os seus recursos, e muita paciencia, arte e resignacao,--nao humilde, mas digna,--conseguia polir os asperos, atrair os indiferentes e domar os hostis. (284, my emphasis)
Helena's appearance thus presents two distinct issues relating to truth and trustworthiness. The first arises in the other characters' reactions to the new state of affairs in the Vale household, as Estacio and D. Ursula must decide whether and how to integrate the newcomer into the family. Although the novel is generally narrated from a point of view very close to Estacio, the narrator provides ample information regarding D. Ursula's attitude regarding Helena, as when he informs us that "Pouco havia ganho [Helena] no espirito de D. Ursula; mas a repulsa desta ja nao era tao viva como nos primeiros dias" (284). Or, shortly afterward, when the narrator stipulates regarding the inclinations of several parties:
Nos primeiros dias de agosto a situacao de Helena podia dizer-se consolidada. D. Ursula nao cedera de todo, mas a convivencia ia produzindo seus frutos. Camargo era o unico irreconciliavel; sentia-se, atraves de suas maneiras cerimoniosas, uma aversao profunda, prestes a converter-se em hostilidade, se fosse preciso. As demais pessoas, nao so domadas, mas ate enfeiticadas, estavam as boas com a filha do conselheiro. (286, my emphasis)
From the beginning, the plot of the novel follows the unfolding of Helena's relationship to Estacio and D. Ursula and, accordingly, the changes in the level of confidence they have in her. Machado's novel is thus populated by characters who are psychologically sophisticated enough to consider the possibility that they are deceived by other characters. Taking Machado's body of work into account, this need not surprise us. After all, the heart of Dom Casmurro is the narrator's contention that he was deceived and betrayed by his wife and best friend. Nevertheless, the explicit discussion of trustworthiness and the grounds for belief in Helena occurs frequently enough to merit attention.
Simultaneously, readers of the novel face the test of deciding which of the attitudes represented by the characters is appropriate. Here the narrator deserves special mention. In several of the passages cited above, I have added emphasis to point out instances of rhetoric that call particular attention to the question of Helena's trustworthiness. It is not just that other characters are reluctant to trust her that makes this issue important, but the way the narrator presents their concerns. Although Estacio is presented as Helena's advocate and the most inclined to accept her--characteristics tied by the narrator, as we saw above, to Estacio's honorable temperament--we are told that "Estacio cedeu de todo, e era facil; seu coracao tendia para ela, mais que nenhum outro. Nao cedeu, porem, sem alguma hesitacao e duvida. A flexibilidade do espirito da irma afigurou-se-lhe a principio mais calculada que espontanea. Mas foi impressao que passou" (284, my emphasis). Doubts about Helena's trustworthiness, arising from her adaptability and possibly "calculated" manner, thus receive additional weight for the reader when they appear in Estacio's thoughts. And if for him the worry was a fleeting thought, for readers this comment only confirms the "impression" that Helena is hiding something.
Such insinuations regarding Helena's honesty are not limited to Estacio's thoughts. Frequent references to Helena's changeability and gift for winning people over interfere with readers' ability to see Helena as a character more manipulated than manipulating. Rather than exploring the experience of a young woman whose circumstances in life have suddenly and radically changed and whose fate is controlled by her new "family"--but upon whom she is clearly dependent, as she herself points out: "Voce [Estacio] pode encara-la com olhos benignos; mas a verdade e que so as asas do favor me protegem..." (313)--the narrator consistently suggests that Helena is the one exploiting the new situation for self-serving or improper ends.
Against this backdrop of general suspicion, Estacio's generosity of spirit seems increasingly naive, while D. Ursula's distrust appears ever more prudent and justified. The situation is brought into relief during the crucial events narrated in chapters VI and VII, beginning with a surprising "confession" by Helena:
--Pensa que gastei toda a tarde em fazer crochet? perguntou ela ao irmao, caminhando para a sala de jantar.
--Nao, senhor; fiz um furto.
--Fui procurar um livro na sua estante.
--E que livro foi?
--Paulo e Virginia?
--Oh! exclamou Estacio. Esse livro...
--Esquisito, nao e? Quando percebi que o era, fechei-o e la o pus outra vez.
--Nao e livro para mocas solteiras...
--Nao creio mesmo que seja para mocas casadas, replicou Helena rindo e sentando-se a mesa. Em todo o caso, li apenas algumas paginas. Depois abri um livro de geometria... e confesso que tive um desejo... --Imagino! interrompeu D. Ursula.
--O desejo de aprender a montar a cavalo, concluiu Helena. Estacio olhou espantado para a irma. Aquela mistura de geometria e equitacao nao lhe pareceu suficientemente clara e explicavel. Helena soltou uma risadinha alegre de menina que aplaude a sua propria travessura.
--Eu lhe explico, disse ela; abri o livro, todo alastrado de riscos que nao entendi. Ouvi porem um tropel de cavalos e cheguei a janela. Eram tres cavaleiros, dous homens e uma senhora. Oh! com que garbo montava a senhora! Imaginem uma moca de vinte e cinco anos, alta, esbelta, um busto de fada, apertado no corpinho de amazona, e a longa cauda do vestido caida a um lado. O cavalo era fogoso; mas a mao e o chicotinho da cavaleira quebravam-lhe os impetos. Tive pena, confesso, de nao saber montar a cavalo... (291)
Readers soon learn, however, that Helena already knows how to ride, a revelation that prompts an expression of suspicion and disapproval from D. Ursula: "Ela sabe tudo, murmurou D. Ursula entre dentes" (293, my emphasis).
These passages exemplify the ambiguities that drive Machado's skeptical challenge. On the one hand, Helena's credibility is damaged, as D. Ursula's reply makes clear. On the other hand, the younger woman's manipulative capacity is not so much revealed as voluntarily displayed when she confesses to Estacio:
--A razao e clara, disse ela; foi uma simples travessura, um capricho... ou antes um calculo.
--Profundo, hediondo, diabolico, continuou a moca sorrindo. Eu queria passear algumas vezes a cavalo; nao era possivel sair so, e nesse caso...
--Bastava pedir-me que a acompanhasse.
--Nao bastava. Havia um meio de lhe dar mais gosto em sair comigo; era fingir que nao sabia montar. A ideia momentanea de sua superioridade neste assunto era bastante para lhe inspirar uma dedicacao decidida... (293-94)
Helena here shows off her capacity for strategic thinking, though her explanation is itself somewhat mysterious. Returning to the earlier passage in which Helena first prompts Estacio to take her riding, we now know that she was lying when she said "Tive pena, confesso, de nao saber montar a cavalo" (291). But what of the rest of the passage? The exchange that culminates in the (implied) request proceeds by several steps: first, the "confession" of the theft of a book; second, the allusion to the provocative French novel Manon Lescaut, third, the reference to geometry, Estacio's intellectual specialization; finally, the account of the riders seen from the window. It would initially appear that Helena moves methodically to persuade Estacio. On this reading, she mentions her "theft" of Manon Lescaut to cause Estacio a moment's embarrassment and to throw him off his footing. She then moves to soothe his discomfort and possible worries about her morals by saying that she immediately put the book back on the shelf, as soon as she realized it was "esquisito." Then, in mentioning geometry, Helena shows interest in Estacio's area of study, perhaps indirectly flattering him by admitting her incomprehension of the text, "todo alastrado de riscos que nao entendi." Despite her suggestion that there is some connection between geometry and her desire to learn to ride, it turns out that the association arose because she heard the passing riders while (apparently) holding the geometry book. The absence of a more substantial connection creates the sense that Helena has only mentioned geometry as a way of buttering Estacio up. Finally, her description of the riders is notable for its highly erotic description of the riding woman and her mount, which may serve to embarrass Estacio so that he would be relieved to consent to Helena's wish and end the conversation.
Here, then, is a sketch of how we might interpret the passage in light of the subsequent revelation. Helena's capacity to play Estacio like a fiddle is deeply disconcerting and would tend to damage her credibility in the eyes of the other characters as well as the novel's readers. As Sidney Chalhoub comments, "Helena sabe induzir em Estacio o comportamento que lhe interessa a ela; em outras palavras, a mocoila conhece perfeitamente as cadeias de causa e efeito que constituem a estrutura mental do mancebo" (Chalhoub 25). However, Helena knowingly puts her manipulative prowess on display, deliberately revealing her skill at riding, thereby also laying bare her earlier strategic calculation and manipulation of Estacio and D. Ursula. What are we to make of this? Perhaps, then, either Helena's scheme, despite its elaborate design, is in the end little more than the "travessura" she initially claims (293; compare with the narrator's comment that "Helena soltou uma risadinha alegre de menina que aplaude a sua propria travessura" ) or Helena's plan goes deeper: she allows herself to be seen by the others as manipulative and calculating, in order to then turn their suspicion against them by making them feel ashamed of their misgivings and lack of charity (as above when she ironically refers to her deception as "profundo, hediondo, diabolico"). There is no easy way to decide between these possibilities. The question will then become: what should one--a character like Estacio or a reader believe and do in such a situation? It would seem that the best thing to do would be to suspend judgment about Helena's intentions, but as we shall see this is not what Estacio does.
The point here is not that Helena should be morally condemned as manipulative and insincere. (2) Instead, what is important is that the possibilities of manipulation and insincerity are raised, and even occasionally confirmed, so as to prevent any secure interpretation of Helena's intentions and goals. But if this does not mean we should condemn her, it also defeats the presumption of her honesty and virtue--or at least it should. In other words, the most reasonable attitude to take toward Helena, already at this early point in the novel, would be to skeptically decline commitment to a belief about her sincerity. The formative circle posed by the novel thus depends on readers' willingness to evaluate the characters' sincerity and to recognize that the narrative presents Helena's motives as potentially suspect--at least as far as Estacio and D. Ursula are concerned.
At the end of the riding episode, Estacio and Helena pass a house with a blue flag, later revealed as the home of Salvador, toward which Helena waves before becoming withdrawn and distracted. When Estacio prompts her to explain what is bothering her, she makes a request:
Peco-lhe que me comunique todas as mas impressoes que tiver a meu respeito. Explicarei umas, procurarei desvanecer-lhe outras, emendandome. Sobretudo, peco-lhe que escreva em seu espirito esta verdade: e que sou uma pobre alma lancada num turbilhao. (297)
This cryptic speech captures Estacio's attention, so when Helena refuses to explain further he takes the matter up with D. Ursula. Casting aside his initial suspicions, Estacio presses his aunt to share his sudden concern about Helena's wellbeing. But D. Ursula is not so easily persuaded.
--Nao a impressiona isto? perguntou Estacio. --Nao, respondeu D. Ursula com decisao; a frase de Helena e achada em algum dos muitos livros que ela le. Helena nao e tola; quer prender-nos por todos os lados, ate pela compaixao. Nao te nego que comeco a gostar dela; e dedicada, afetuosa, diligente; tem maneiras finas e algumas prendas de sociedade. Alem disso, e naturalmente simpatica. Ja vou gostando dela; mas e um gostar sem fogo nem paixao, em que entra boa dose de costume e necessidade. A presenca de outra mulher nesta casa e conveniente, porque eu estou cansada. Helena preenche essa lacuna. Se alguma cousa, entretanto, a podia prejudicar nas nossas relacoes e esse dito. Estacio tomou calorosamente a defesa da irma. --O que eu lhe contei, disse ele, foram apenas as palavras. Nao pude nem poderei reproduzir a expressao sincera com que ela as proferiu, e a profunda tristeza que havia em seus olhos. Nao lhe nego que, ao ve-la mudar tao depressa e entrar alegre na sala, senti tal ou qual abalo de duvida, mas passou logo. Ela tem o poder de concentrar a amargura no coracao; tambem a dor tem suas hipocrisias... (298, my emphasis)
Estacio finally asks the reluctant D. Ursula to try to discover the reason for Helena's unhappiness. This passage is a paradigmatic illustration of the complexity of Machado's characters, inasmuch as we observe them not only differing in their interpretations of another character's words and deeds, but expressing these differences to each other. The problem of Helena's sincerity is not just posed as a question to be resolved as the novel unfolds, but becomes a process by which the other characters are constituted; Estacio and D. Ursula are defined by their distinct interpretations of Helena's performance. Readers training in skeptical doubt, in the withholding of assent from claims lacking clear justification, should note the relevance of suspicion and uncertainty in the conflict between these characters.
Estacio is immediately persuaded to take Helena at her word. She says she is caught in a difficult situation, the nature of which cannot be revealed, and Estacio accepts her account. From his perspective, Helena's plaintive performance must be considered sincere, despite her refusal to disclose its cause or motivation. Estacio will believe what Helena says, even though this commits him to thinking that she is hiding some deeper and possibly dangerous truth from him. D. Ursula takes the opposite view, seeing no reason to think Helena's performance of the romantic heroine is sincere or that the girl is facing any difficulty. Instead, for D. Ursula, a motive for Helena's supposed half-confession (at the beginning of chapter VII, 297) is at hand: "ela quer prender-nos por todos os lados" (298). To her way of thinking, it is easy enough to understand what Helena is trying to achieve, despite Helena's deliberate deception.
The epistemic attitudes displayed here by Estacio and D. Ursula stand in clear counterpoint. What might D. Ursula see that Estacio does not? Notably, D. Ursula does not criticize Helena for trying to manipulate the family members. In fact, she seems to justify Helena's efforts to win their affections, asserting that "Helena nao e tola"--that is, there is a rational explanation for the girl's conduct. Apparently, D. Ursula objects not to Helena's deceptive performance as such, but to the lengths and means she has employed. D. Ursula seems to resent the pitch of Helena's act, even while acknowledging that Helena must indulge in some such performance to secure her new social position. To her thinking, the family has gone to sufficient lengths to integrate Helena, but at this point the melodramatic speech is overkill. Both sides have had their roles to play, as D. Ursula recognizes when she admits that her relationship with Helena is defined by a "boa dose de costume e necessidade" (298). Helena has done well at trying to impress them and the family members have allowed themselves to be swayed, but the further step of attempting to control them "ate pela compaixao" is now over the line (298).
D. Ursula's attitude raises several considerations for Estacio's (and readers') contemplation. First, there is at least one alternative explanation for Helena's words, namely that Helena is manipulating his emotions in order to shore up her new social standing. Second, local social norms sometimes necessitate performances that may not be fully sincere but do not necessarily reflect poorly on the people involved. In the third place, however, Helena's recent performance has violated decorum, since, to D. Ursula's mind, she has invited the family to pity her good fortune.
How should Estacio respond to this test? In the light of D. Ursula's reaction, it would appear that he should skeptically suspend judgment about the matter or at least reduce his confidence in his initial impression. However, Estacio does just the opposite. The conversation with D. Ursula and her disagreement with his evaluation seem only to strengthen his conviction. Here Estacio appears to make his first major epistemic mistake. The exchange with D. Ursula establishes Estacio's naivete for readers, who thereafter wonder if he is epistemically irresponsible, due to his failure to give adequate credit to his own doubts. (3)
These scenes demonstrate the centrality of the problem of sincerity in Helena, though there are many other moments that focus attention on the question of what may be justifiably believed. Shortly following the passages discussed above, Helena tries to put a letter out of Estacio's sight, causing him suspicion. When he asks her about it, she offers to let him read it, forcing Estacio to refuse in embarrassment. Far from banishing his misgiving, Helena's gesture comes across as a shrewd tactic rather than evidence of innocence, since Estacio, who consistently presents himself as generous and warm, cannot easily choose to invade her private correspondence. His suspicion remains:
A inocencia nao teria mais puro rosto; a hipocrisia nao encontraria mais impassivel mascara. Estacio contemplava-a, a um tempo envergonhado e suspeitoso; a carta fazia-lhe cocegas; o olhar ambicionava ser como o da Providencia que penetra nos mais intimos refolhos do coracao. (304)
The ambiguity of the first sentence--is this the narrator's opinion or are Estacio's thoughts given in free indirect style?--enhances the tension of the moment, which amounts to a statement of skepticism about other minds. Estacio can only know anything about Helena's beliefs and emotions via the external signs of her speech and gestures, which may be deceptive. It would take the power of Providence to know Helena's mind more directly. A comprehensive discussion of the problem of other minds, a potentially crucial issue in Machado's fiction, exceeds the scope of this article. For our purposes, however, we should note that Estacio is staring the problem in the face: he worries that Helena's speech and gestures may deceive him and seems aware that he can have no better means of understanding her mental states. In the following section, we will turn to the dubious climactic "revelations" of Helena's past, to see how readers, charged by the formative circle with following and assessing Estacio's choices, must face the problem too.
Reinterpreting the Ending of Helena
As noted earlier, the dramatic revelations made by Salvador at the novel's climactic moment are presented in the character's own voice and do not receive confirmation from the narrator. The narrator of Helena therefore differs from the narrator of Ressurreicao, Machado's first novel. As Gustavo Bernardo Krause points out, in that novel, "the narrator sees Felix as solely responsible for his own future doubts and disappointments" (Krause, "Skeptical Paradox" 230). This type of intervention is alien to the narrator of Helena, who provides us privileged access to Estacio's thoughts, but refrains from opining so baldly on the developing narrative.
Curiously, Estacio and Padre Melchior, who hear Salvador's confession, seem to accept it without hesitation. This is odd enough, given that the speaker is a stranger to them and, moreover, the stakes are quite high. Considering what we have already seen--that the characters in Helena do not take sincerity for granted, particularly when one party might have something to gain by deceiving another--this immediate acceptance of the tale seems like a mistake.
In fact, matters are even stranger, since Salvador himself appears to acknowledge that the listeners might be (or ought to be) reluctant to believe him. At the end of Salvador's recitation, he shows Estacio and Padre Melchior a box of letters, which he says he received from Helena over the years, obviously offering the correspondence as evidence that will corroborate the story he has just told. But, crucially, in the same breath he both admits and denies the need for proof:
De tudo o que lhes disse nao tenho outras provas alem destas cartas, que seriam bastantes, e de minha lagrimas, que hao de ser eternas. Mas, ainda quando haja outras, creio que nao serao precisas. Na situacao em que estamos, so ha duas solucoes possiveis; ou nada se altera do que o conselheiro estatuiu, e somente eu carregarei as consequencias da sorte, desaparecendo; ou a familia rejeita Helena, e eu a levarei comigo. (378)
Salvador admits that he has limited proof for his story, but he also claims that the available evidence is sufficiently convincing, and that the availability or lack of evidence is in the end irrelevant because the practical question of what to do remains the same either way: either Salvador will disappear and everything else will go on as before or Helena will be forced to leave the Vale home and the two will depart together. (4) Is any of this persuasive? Arguably, not much of it is. It is not clear whether the letters prove anything relevant, as we shall see, much less that they are sufficient evidence in favor of Salvador's account. Neither is it obvious that the two practical alternatives he lays out are the only available options. If he is telling the truth, and both he and Helena have been fundamentally honorable despite having deceived Conselheiro Vale's family, then they did so in full accordance with the will of the deceased. Why then should it be necessary for Salvador to disappear? Though it might not be possible to incorporate him into the family's social world, why should it be equally impossible, say, for him to continue living nearby? Surely there are other possibilities besides the two offered by Salvador. When we look closely at Salvador's rhetoric, we are apt to feel that he is diverting the conversation from the question of whether anyone should believe what he is saying--though there is limited proof, he says, it ought to suffice and anyway further evidence would be unnecessary--toward the pragmatic issue of what should occur next. And with respect to that question, he seems to push the others to consider only certain options.
Does any of this show that Salvador is lying? Not at all. Yet as we observed in other instances, where Helena is presented in a way that makes both characters and readers doubt her sincerity, there are reasons for Estacio (and the reading audience) to hesitate before accepting Salvador's account of the past.
But don't the letters Salvador offers as evidence preempt any concern about the truth of what he says? The trouble is that none of the characters in the novel actually bother to read them. Neither Estacio nor the priest moves to check Salvador's claims against these records. Instead, they leave them behind, unexamined. The characters are even given a second chance to correct their oversight, when the letters appear again before the conclusion of the novel. Salvador sends the box to Estacio, along with a message explaining that he will depart for good, taking only three of the letters with him--an exclusion that might seem suspicious in itself. Even then, Estacio declines to look at the papers, and turns them over to Helena, who gives them to D. Ursula, asking her, somewhat cryptically, to read them and then judge her according to what they reveal--though nothing suggests that D. Ursula ever looks at them. (5)
Not only do the characters fail to consider whether the documents support Salvador's claims, but, since the letters remain unread, nothing of their content is disclosed by the narrator. Readers, then, can make no judgment about the truth of Salvador's story on the basis of the evidence supposedly contained in the letters because nothing indicates that the letters corroborate his tale. And if readers should suspend judgment about Salvador's account, a fortiori Estacio certainly should. In short, someone in Estacio's situation, who is forced to rethink the identity of a woman he took to be his sister, would do well to consider carefully all of the available evidence. Estacio can either believe what Salvador says, assume that Salvador is lying, or suspend judgment about Salvador's narrative. It seems clear that Estacio should not assume, before reading them, that the letters corroborate the story. Even if Salvador is taken to be truthful, Estacio must accept that he and Helena have deceived the family in the past. It would therefore be foolish at this point to accept the story at face value. Salvador's account is not the only possible explanation of the events, as Helena very well recognizes when she says that Estacio, even supposing he believes the story he has been told, must always see her as an "aventureira":
Nao posso ser outra cousa a seus olhos, prosseguiu a moca, tristemente. Quem o convencera de que a declaracao de seu pai nao foi obtida por artificios de minha mae? Quem lhe dara a prova de que, cedendo aos rogos de meu pai, nao fiz mais do que executar um plano preparado ja? Sao duvidas que lhe hao de envenenar o sentimento e tornar-me suspeita a seus olhos. (384, my emphasis)
Calling attention to the problem of relating evidence to conclusions and the doubts that threaten the aspiration to knowledge, Helena emphasizes the epistemic bind in which Estacio finds himself. For all Estacio knows--and maybe as far as Helena herself knows--perhaps Conselheiro Vale was made to believe that he was Helena's father. (6) Or perhaps Salvador's whole story is an elaborate ruse concocted to explain away Helena's socially unacceptable visits to his house. It would seem that any justification Estacio might have for believing Salvador's story is initially compromised by his awareness that he has already been the victim of a deception on the part of Helena and Salvador.
Scrutiny of these issues reveals that the proffered papers recall the scene in which Estacio becomes suspicious about Helena's letter. In that case we saw that the very act of offering the letter came across as a calculated move that forced Estacio to abdicate his claim to read Helena's private correspondence. It would be incompatible with Estacio's sense of honor to insist, particularly once the letter has been freely offered for his inspection, and he comes away feeling both suspicious and ashamed. The letters produced by Salvador should have much the same effect: they are offered freely, along with the claim that they will settle any doubts, and again Estacio declines to read them. But this time, he fails to reflect on the possibility that the offer might constitute yet another deceptive tactic.
Perhaps one reason Estacio accepts Salvador's story is that it permits him to believe that Helena is not his sister, which allows him to hope for the consummation of a love thought incestuous. Thus, instead of holding fast to the demanding principles of reasoning associated with his character since the early pages of the novel, Estacio abandons his sense of intellectual responsibility in favor of his desire for Helena. As he rushes to believe Salvador's account, which supports not only Helena's virtue but makes her seem suddenly available to him, Estacio completes the epistemic fall that began following the riding scene, when he failed to take seriously his own doubts about Helena's sincerity. Blinded by desire, he again fails to do what is reasonable: suspend judgment.
Another explanation of why Estacio and the others accept Salvador's tale lies in its narrative form. Salvador tells a good romantic tear-jerker, full of loss and self-sacrifice--with the saintly characterization of Conselheiro Vale thrown into the bargain--and Estacio and Padre Melchior are swept away. As Alain-Philippe Durand has pointed out, Salvador's story is a miniature version of Manon Lescaut: a young man (Salvador / Chevalier des Grieux) runs off with a young woman (Angela / Manon) against the wishes of his family; the woman later takes up with an older, wealthier man (Conselheiro Vale / M. de G. M.), though her young lover remains devoted to her until her death (Durand 22, passim).
The allusion to Abbe Prevost's novel is surely not gratuitous, considering that Helena contains an earlier, explicit reference to that work. Shouldn't Estacio recognize the plot of the famous novel in Salvador's tale? Presumably, Machado expected his contemporary readers to do so. Shouldn't its high romanticism make both Estacio and readers wonder whether the account is truthful? Salvador himself calls attention to this question during his narration when he claims that "Nao escrevo um romance" (372). This statement is a plea for the audience's indulgence, an appeal to accept the story despite its melodrama. But this is merely rhetoric, for, in the end, the emotional twists and turns of the plot and the pathos of the performance captivate and convince the listeners: "Tinha acabado; grossas lagrimas, retidas a custo enfim lhe rebentaram dos olhos e rolaram pelo rosto abaixo do narrador. A comocao nao ficou so nele; os dous ouvintes a sentiram tambem" (378, my emphasis).
It is true that Salvador, regardless of the veracity of his discourse, is not writing a novel, but of course that is exactly what someone else is doing in Helena. We turn now to consider what the novel suggests for its readers by the exploration of sincerity and Estacio's epistemic failures.
Training Skeptical Readers
If Helena presents an epistemic tragedy in which Estacio makes a series of illconsidered judgments despite or perhaps because of his high-minded intentions, ultimately ending with Helena's death and his own likely unhappy marriage to Eugenia, readers should not be complacent or too easily satisfied. By the end of the novel, when we see that Estacio's belief in Salvador's story is motivated but not justified by its narrative form, we find ourselves facing an uncomfortably familiar situation. We know, after all, that the novel is a fiction and yet may be inclined to think it reveals something of reality to us. Certainly, critics like Schwarz and Gledson who consider Machado de Assis a realist expect his work to do just this. Granting that the specifics of the narrative are fictitious (and therefore literally false), we presume to read through this layer to glimpse the novel's supposedly truthful portrayal of a social system or set of relations. But are we, in the end, justified in assuming that this portrayal is sincere, let alone accurate? Machado offers us this challenge, inviting us to a skeptical reflection on our expectations in reading fiction: if Estacio, the mathematician who is trained to follow and produce logical proofs, can be absurdly credulous, believing a stranger's story just because it is a good yarn that coheres with what he wants to believe; and if we ourselves are capable of overlooking Estacio's credulity, as many astute critics of the novel have, what right do have to claim that we can learn a lesson about Brazilian society in the 1850s by reading a fictional story, written by a man we know about as well as Estacio knows Salvador? (7)
Unless we take care in reading the novel, the sort of care Estacio fails to exemplify, we may fail to notice that the grand revelations of the ending do not explain important features of the story. During the riding scene, why does Helena make a show of waving to the house with the blue flag and why, later on, does Helena give Estacio her drawing of the same house? Why does she call his attention to the place? More disturbingly, in the end, why does Salvador abandon Helena to her fate? If we are reading skeptically, we might consider that Salvador's departure does Helena no good at all, while sparing him further questioning, should the members of the Vale family begin to doubt his tale. It might be that Helena dies of a crisis of conscience, as Alfredo Bosi has written, but for all Estacio or we know--since we have no better access to Helena's thoughts than he does--she might just as well succumb to the pain of her abandonment by Salvador or, if we take a dimmer view of her, to the guilt of betrayal (cf. Bosi 45-57). In other words, Helena challenges readers to consider whether, when, and how they arrive at conclusions about what occurs within the fictional world and, as a corollary, whether, when, and how they are justified in forming beliefs about reality on the basis of fictions and other forms of discourse.
On this approach, Machado's literary project can be understood as an effort to train skepticcal readers, readers who will take great care in interpreting the text, who will consider alternative explanations of the events, and who will avoid adopting unwarranted commitments regarding the facts of the plot and their meaning. When faced with uncertainty or ambiguity, they will withhold judgment out of a sense of intellectual responsibility, according to which it is better to hold no opinion about a given question than to hold one that is erroneous or ill formed. However, unlike the Pyrrhonian attitude, which consistently deploys epoche in the hope of attaining ataraxia, the skeptical training of Helena aims to make us better, more careful, and more critical readers of both the text and the world--that is, better at ascertaining the truth and avoiding error--but without offering any promise of intellectual solace or tranquility. Skepticism is not presented here as a therapeutic antidote to the stress of trying to answer questions about the world. It is, at best, an attitude to be utilized instrumentally when we cannot reasonably make conclusive or even tentative judgments of fact. The novel's formative circle challenges readers to identify situations in which the suspension of judgment is called for--both within the fiction and in relation to the message, ideology, or portrayals apparently communicated by the text--and to become more judicious in their interpretations of fictions, even as this may force them to live with significant doubt and uncertainty--what the narrator calls "o pior das angustias--a duvida" (.Helena 356).
This need not imply a revival of the old criticism that Machado was little concerned with contemporary social conditions. After all, to say that Machado wrote Helena as a training text for skeptical reading is to suggest that the author sensed a need for such an intellectual exercise among his readers (or at least those he could imagine for his work). Indeed, although detailed examination of the point is not possible here, the problem posed by the inscrutability (for Estacio) of Helena's thoughts and motives results from her class inferiority relative to the Vale family. Plucked from obscurity and transplanted among the wealthy, she can hardly do other than try to charm them and win their affections, since, in her own words, "so as asas do favor me protegem" (313). (8) In perverse consequence, she cannot seem entirely sincere no matter what she does: she is barred from admitting that there is anything negative about her new situation, since doing so would make her seem ungrateful, but if she presents herself as entirely contented, she will seem to be overplaying the part or pandering. As a result, Helena must inevitably seem to be dissembling.
But if Helena's social position dictates that she not be fully open about her thoughts, then Estacio cannot reasonably suppose that he knows what is going on in her mind on the basis of her behavior--he ought to understand that her material situation restricts the transparency of her actions. The class structure that compels dependents to disguise their thoughts also defeats the efforts of the superior class to understand or trust their social inferiors. In other words, the novel calls out not only the unfairness of the bind that afflicts dependents (and, elsewhere, the inhuman treatment of the enslaved), but the epistemically impoverished position of the master class that results. Helena thus invites us to wonder: what if our knowledge of other minds is threatened by the contingent, historical features of the society we have formed, by the injustices we inflict upon one another?
Finally, if Helena incorporates a formative exercise that invites readers to attend to problems of belief, justification, and knowledge, and which has been hitherto overlooked, do we then return to the traditional assessment of the novel as a failure? Not necessarily. After all, significant features of even widely admired works by Machado have sometimes received only belated attention. It was some sixty years after the publication of Dom Casmurro that Helen Caldwell's now-famous analysis compared the novel to Shakespeare's Othello and promoted dismissal of the narrator's accusations against Capitu. Similarly, Katia Muricy has written that Machado's fiction attempted to undermine the reigning ideas and values of his day--a project undervalued in the early reception of the author's work. Perhaps, then, Helena too can be read as a novel built to work in ways not initially appreciated by its readers. If it did not immediately succeed in radically altering the intellectual attitudes of its early audience, we can nevertheless understand the novel as a trial balloon testing readers' readiness and willingness to adopt the critical posture of skepticism, a stage in the unfolding formal and social experiment of Machado's fiction.
David M. Mittelman
University of New Hampshire
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(1) For the basic description of this character type, see Maia Neto, Machado de Assis 21-28.
(2) Sidney Chalhoub has perhaps made the most interesting use of the problem of sincerity in Helena, although he ultimately thinks the novel should be read as "uma interpretacao da sociedade brasileira durante o periodo de hegemonia do projeto saquarema" (Chalhoub 17).
(3) It might be argued that the conclusion of the novel proves Estacio right: Helena is hiding a dark truth that causes her great suffering. However, on the reading offered here, readers (and characters themselves) should suspend judgment about the revelations made by Salvador. On such an interpretation, the ending confirms neither Estacio's nor D. Ursula's views.
(4) Before beginning his story, Salvador actually claims to have no evidence at all for the claim that he is Helena's father: "Nao tenho prova de nenhuma natureza" (370). It turns out things are not so simple.
(5) The possibility that writing can be as deceptive as speech is raised by Estacio himself when he first hears that Salvador is Helena's true father: "Quem sabe se e verdade o que lemos nesse papel?" (369). One could say the same of the letters produced by Salvador.
(6) Salvador actually raises this possibility, though he denies it: "Suponha, disse ele, que eu havia iludido a confianca do conselheiro e que ele acreditava ser pai de Helena" (370).
(7) We might even observe that if we accept Salvador's story, then we will be forced to admit that the narrator has been misleading the reader since the beginning, since he consistently refers to Helena as Estacio's sister, D. Ursula as Helena's aunt, and so on. So either the narrator has literally been lying, in which case we should think twice about trusting him altogether, or we can attempt to preserve the coherence of his discourse by dismissing Salvador's version of the story.
(8) These issues were, of course, raised by Roberto Schwarz's classic discussion of free dependents in nineteenth-century Brazil and the social politics of patronage.
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|Author:||Mittelman, David M.|
|Date:||May 1, 2019|
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