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  • Reading Rio de Janeiro: Literature and Society in the Nineteenth Century by Zephyr L. Frank
  • Lúcia Flórido
Zephyr L. Frank. Reading Rio de Janeiro: Literature and Society in the Nineteenth Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015. 229pp. ISBN 978-0-8047-5744-7. $60.

In this very compelling study, Zephyr Frank proposes a new approach to understanding the impact of economic history in the inception and development of the modern Brazilian novel. He chooses to direct his attention to texts whose subject matter deals with the formative years of protagonists in the context of Rio’s shifting social parameters in the nineteenth century. Reading Rio de Janeiro focuses primarily on the novels of three of Brazil’s most renowned writers: José de Alencar, Machado de Assis, and Aluísio de Azevedo. Going beyond traditional approaches favored by scholars who interpret literature as a by-product of history, the book offers a much richer and layered analyses. As the author explains in the preface, “I want to do something else, something without an established name and methodology” (xii). The inclusion of ancillary materials, such as maps, illustrations, and graphics, proves instrumental in assisting readers as they follow Frank’s intellectual foray through the intricacies of life in Rio, then the Corte, during the second half of Pedro II’s reign (1831–1889). Divided in two parts, the first three chapters center on the study of the urban bildungsroman Sonhos d’ouro, by José de Alencar (1872), Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, by Machado de Assis (1881), and O coruja, by Aluísio de Azevedo (1890)—and their respective protagonists, Ricardo, Brás, and André. The second part (chapters 4–6) incorporates additional texts from the literary corpus of the aforementioned authors, as well as the fictional works of other contemporary novelists. The inclusion of new primary texts enhances the thesis by systematically advancing and consolidating it within the scope of a broader context.

Reading Rio de Janeiro discusses how the transformations at the core of a bourgeoning capitalist society are portrayed in literature and, simultaneously, how literature provides the most relevant examples to a deeper understanding of these transformations. The bildungsroman inherently describes the journey taken by a protagonist as he or she develops as an individual, in the context of and often due to external influences. This review centers [End Page 233] on the first three chapters, since the main issues presented in them are the basis of the last three ones. Ricardo, Brás, and André (all three young, fatherless, and in the process of becoming) are jostled by the strong, opposing currents that will reshape a city going through its own struggles toward adulthood. Nonetheless, if the protagonists share gender, youth, and the absence of a father figure, they differ much in regard to social status and, consequently, in how they choose to perform (or are otherwise unconsciously steered by past griefs) as they attempt to navigate the public sphere.

In the case of Alencar’s Ricardo, a provincial lawyer with few prospects who moves to Rio in the hopes of building a life for himself, the constant drive of the quest will lead eventually to stability in the guise of an enviable place in society. Through the improbable twists and turns of a romantic plot, Ricardo breaches financial and social barriers by marrying Guida, the daughter of the rare rich man who still values character over capital. Ricardo’s Bildung is thus accomplished by moving up the social ladder without having to compromise his values. Machado’s Brás, conversely, was born rich and, spoiled by privilege, his aspirations shifted along with his whims. Because he has never needed to fight for social distinction, he dabbled aimlessly at work and love, going through life without leaving behind anything tangible. Thus, Brás’s whole existence was a continuous, unaccomplished education. The fates of Azevedo’s André, nicknamed “Coruja” (a bastard child, unattractive and dull), and of his childhood ally Teobaldo (affluent, handsome, and charming) suggest a double failed Bildung. While they grew up intertwined, the two epitomized contrasting universes within the same space. André’s mediocrity endures, and he...


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