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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dom Casmurro

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis

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To purchase Dom Casmurro

Title: Dom Casmurro
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Genre: Novel
Written: 1899 (Eng. 1997)
Length: 270 pages
Original in: Portuguese
Availability: Dom Casmurro - US
Dom Casmurro - UK
Dom Casmurro - Canada
Dom Casmurro - India
Dom Casmurro - France
Dom Casmurro - Deutschland
Don Casmurro - Italia
Don Casmurro - España
  • Portuguese title: Dom Casmurro
  • Translated and with a Foreword by John A. Gledson
  • With an Afterword by João Adolfo Hansen
  • Previously translated by Helen Caldwell (1953) and Robert L. Scott-Buccleuch (1966)

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Our Assessment:

A- : fine story, creatively and effectively presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Americas . 6/1998 Barbara Mujica
The NY Rev.of Books . 18/7/2002 Michael Wood
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/2/1998 K.David Jackson
The Spectator* . 27/11/1953 R.D.Charques
The Spectator* . 15/8/2015 Duncan Fallowell
Sunday Times* . 6/12/1953 J.W.Lambert
TLS* . 4/12/1953 D.Tylden-Wright
The Washington Post . 23/11/1997 Michael Dirda

*: Refers to a different translation than the one under review here.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Although there is an element of humor in Don Casmurro, this is an unsettling book. With its unexpected twists, rapid changes in direction, questioning of objective reality, and open-endedness, it speaks remarkably well to the modem reader." - Barbara Mujica, Americas

  • "Bento's memoir, couched in all the fine rhetoric of persuasion and conversing amiably with the reader, nevertheless casts a wider net, into which the memoirist also falls. Woven into the logic of his legal case, one perceives patriarchal obsessions, guilt about contravening his mother's vows, a pathology of victimization in his struggle with eroticism and desire and finally the cold equilibrium of a narrator who is above his own crimes and who, by writing, is burying his victims in pages that reconstruct a past set against itself." - K.David Jackson, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Dom Casmurro ("Grumpy") is a novel of very similar character, done in much the same sly and inconsequent idiom of elderly reminiscence and hung about with identical shreds of fanciful and melancholy sentiment." - R.D.Charques, The Spectator

  • "(I)t is discursive, fragmentary, continuously and quietly aerated by an unillusioned irony, comic and tender by turns and both together" - J. W. Lambert, Sunday Times

  • "(H)ere the unwavering tone of his narrative becomes monotonous and its sequence is badly broken up by the headings, which sometimes enclose a passage of no more than ten lines. His style and the conception of the character of Dom Casmurro seem to owe something to Anatole France, but lack the flash of France's wit and the polish of his prose." - David Tylden-Wright, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(A) heartbreaking masterpiece. (...) Dom Casmurro inexorably moves from the light of first love to the darkening penumbra of jealousy and obsession. It abounds with echoes of Othello. Yet the story is far more subtle than it may seem at first. (...) John Gledson's Dom Casmurro seems excellent, as good as Helen Caldwell's classic 1953 version." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As the first chapter -- 'The Title' -- explains, 'Don Casmurro' is a nickname, the meaning not quite the dictionary one for 'casmurro' but rather: "the one the common people give it, of a quiet person who keeps to himself". The narrator is Bento Santiago, who writes from his solitary older age ("I live alone, with a servant"), looking back over his life, and especially to the great love of his life. His story begins some four decade earlier, in 1857, when he was fifteen -- and the neighbor-girl, Capitu, fourteen (though, as her father Pádua observes: "Who would think she was only fourteen ? She seems more like seventeen").
       Bento overhears his widowed mother and the 'dependent' house-fixture, José Dias, discussing Bento's future -- José Dias suggesting it's time to pack him off to the seminary, before he and Capitu get too close. It is only when this potential danger, of an improper intimacy, is mentioned that it dawns on the very innocent Bento that his feelings for his longtime childhood friend might be deeper than he had suspected. But the seminary and a future as a priest would derail any possible romance -- and Bento's beloved mother promised god when Bento was still in utero that she would see to it that, if she was blessed with a son, this was the path he would follow (and devoted son Bento wouldn't have the strength or willpower to go against her wishes).
       Bento quickly realizes Capitu is in love with him too, but she also knows that he can't stand up to his family. She knows he'll bow to their demands and dutifully go to the seminary:

     "You ? You'll go."
     "I'll not."
     "You'll see if you go or not."
       Of course he goes -- but the youngsters promise to make a future together, certain their love will endure the trials it has to face until they can openly proclaim it. Capitu ingratiates herself with Bento's mother while he's off at school, playing her disinterested role well -- eventually: "Capitu became the flower of the household, the sun in the morning, the cool of the evening, the moon at nighttime". Bento, meanwhile, always has greater difficulty hiding his true feelings -- and concerns.
       It's eventually understood that Bento won't become a priest, but the would-be lovers are still kept apart, as he is sent off to Europe for a proper education. Capitu worries -- "'If you go,' she said, 'you'll completely forget me'" -- but he vows his love won't be diminished by the distance -- and indeed the relationship seems to remain as strong as ever. It's some five years until he returns, but by then almost everything is resolved and nothing stands in their way any longer.
       The novel lingers over the lovers in their younger years, two-thirds of it passing before Bento is even off to Europe. At that point -- once entirely separated from the teenage Capitu -- the story speeds up, with Bento rushing over years at a time -- in, for example, describing how:
     Reason won out, and I went off to my studies. I passed my eighteenth, nineteenth, twentieth, twenty-first birthdays; at twenty-two I was a Bachelor of Law.
       In his absence his best friend from his seminary days, Escobar, is the trusted intermediary passing letters between Capitu and Bento. While Bento is away Escobar also begins his successful business career -- and marries Capitu's best friend. And upon Bento's return the love-story can come to its happy conclusion, with Capitu and Bento marrying.
       Of course, that's not the conclusion, and not the start of any happily everafter. Indeed, marriage comes almost as an anti-climax. They are a happy enough couple, but Bento doesn't dwell all that closely on their happiness or life together, covering these first married years quickly too.
       It is very late in the novel that the devastating realization comes to Bento, as only:
Now I remembered everything that at the time had seemed to be nothing.
       All along the way there have been clues -- situations that can be interpreted different ways. Bento shows flashes of jealousy, but not at what might have seemed more obvious points, and when some signs do suggest something is wrong he can't -- or refuses to -- put his finger on the most obvious suspects. Still:
     One thing leads to another, and I talked of other doubts. At this time I as full of them; they croaked inside me, like real frogs, even to the point of sometimes keeping me awake at night.
       He is madly in love with Capitu -- "Capitu was everything and more than everything" -- but he never entirely trusted that she could remain devoted to him, and ultimately he can not but see betrayal in her. The evidence seems clear to him -- in the flesh, even, he can't interpret it any other way -- and yet it never is entirely clear; that's part of the power of the story, that Don Casmurro must live with that doubt, of whether or not he was right.
       In their younger days Bento already once doubted Capitu, when he saw her and a man exchange looks -- but Capitu can reassure him:
If he had looked at her, that was precisely the proof that there was nothing between the young man and her; if there had been, it would have been natural to dissemble.
       Dissemblance is of course part of the problem: the need to hide true feelings and relationships is something Bento is familiar with, as he kept up his relationship with young Capitu behind the backs of his family -- and, of course, he inevitably sees how, potentially, tables can be turned on him. Typically, too, he's unable to address his concerns head-on: such things are not spoken of. So, even, devastatingly, when Capitu and Bento go their separate ways he answers her:
     "The separation is already decided on," I replied taking up her suggestion. "It would have been better to have done it by means of hints, or in complete silence; each of us would have gone his own way, with his own wound.
       His preference is to not spell it all out, or even to hint at his suspicions; when he finally makes his case, it's of course too late to salvage anything.
       Don Casmurro is presented in many short chapters -- 148 of them, over less than 250 pages -- but it is not a choppy narrative. Machado builds up the momentum slowly, beginning at a leisurely, reflective pace, only slowly accelerating before the final plunge into the abyss. If Bento is something of a momma's-boy -- all the way to the over-the-top tombstone inscription he insist on -- the family, complete with bitter, suspicious aunt and the manipulative dependent José Dias is a richly imagined flawed but loving one. So also other characters, such as Capitu's father or best friend Escobar, are well-utilized and presented in the story; indeed, only Capitu remains possibly too flighty -- though even this seems appropriate, as Bento never fully seems to grasp her character.
       The presentation, with the narrator often directly addressing his reader -- including specific ones (Escobar's wife, at one point) --, works well, with Machado expertly capturing Bento's uncertain voice -- uncertain as to how and what to relate, and uncertain still about the truth, and his (re)actions. At one point he even realizes he should have included an episode: "I beg your pardon, but this chapter should have been preceded by another", and he continues with the missing chapter but doesn't put it in its 'proper' place, explaining that while he could insert it before this chapter: "it's a great nuisance to alter the page numbers".
       Don Casmurro is a deeply melancholy romantic tale, the narrator lingering over the happier times in order not to dwell on their undoing, even as he drops clues throughout of where this is inevitably headed. Bento feels betrayed but also feels the guilt of being a betrayer, aware that his own weaknesses -- unable to stand up to his beloved mother, among other things -- and character flaws contributed to the how it all had to fall apart.
       With its well-drawn character, its gentle humor, and tremendous range Don Casmurro is a superior variation on a familiar sort of tale.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 December 2015

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Dom Casmurro: Reviews (* refers to a different translation than the one under review here): Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: Other books by Machado de Assis under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Brazilian author Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis lived 1839 to 1908.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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