The echo chamber of Dom Casmurro

Machado de Assis gives us the key to the echo chamber that is Dom Casmurro in the second chapter.

My purpose was to tie together the two ends of my life, to restore adolescence in old age. Well, sir, I did not succeed in putting back together what had been nor what I had been. If the face is the same, the expression is different. If it were only the others that were missing, no matter. A man consoles himself more or less for those he has lost, but I myself am missing, and this lack is essential.

Here we have Echo without her Narcissus, a story told by a tight-lipped man who doesn’t tell stories. And yet the echoes and the possibilities multiply. Is Bento Santiago crafting the tale this way, or is it outside of his control, since he, by his own admission, is missing from the center of the tale?

The echoes, the multiplying stories and trajectories, are even in the small details of the novel. When Bentinho tries his hand at a sonnet in seminary, he struggles with the final line: Life is lost, the battle still is won! Worn out, he decides to try for inspiration by reversing it: Life is won, the battle still is lost! Both lines, though opposites, shed menacing meaning on the outcome of the story, and the narrator tells us, slyly, that the reader may have the lines for his own use: “All he has to do is give it an idea and fill in the missing middle.” That missing middle again: Bento himself.

Other echoes are more significant. Bentinho, as I mentioned in my review, has the bad habit of making fervent promises to God in exchange for this favor or that, and then welching on his debts. This is portrayed as an amusing juvenile tendency. But the echo, magnified by the chamber of the novel, is his mother’s troubling action: she promised her only son to God, to be a priest, and broke her vow. Can one man stand in for another in all circumstances?

Two dead men, and two funerals. Eyes like the tide, and jealousy of the sea. A suggestion for dramatic reform, and references to Shakespeare, to Goethe, to the opera. Perhaps the most overt echo of all: a portrait of Gurgel’s wife that closely resembles Capitu, and the offhand remark that “these chance resemblances occur.” Magnified by a different possibility, they do occur. Or do they?

The only two things that are not echoes of each other are Bentinho and Capitu themselves. These two characters stand in the center of the novel, one our taciturn Dom Casmurro, and the other a startling, fully-rounded, likeable question mark that we see only through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. The story revolves around them, and as Machado de Assis (or Dom Casmurro?) multiplies the possibilities, they go through different stories in our minds, a whispering gallery, twisting the words.  

Such fun. On to Bras Cubas next, a completely different kind of novel (?) and a different way of multiplying possibility.

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6 Responses to The echo chamber of Dom Casmurro

  1. Machedo is a writer I’ve just discovered. And I’ll be reading his short story Justice Unbalanced soon.

    • Jenny says:

      Let me know how it is. I’m just reading these two, Dom Casmurro and Bras Cubas, so I’m curious to see how others are.

  2. Once again I just looted your excellent post for my own purposes. My Reading Challenges are, in essence, parasitical.

    I especially loved the idea of calling the narrator the “middle” of the novel, the big center that is deliberately concealed, that the knowing reader has to work on. This is exactly how unreliable narrators always work.

    i guess I will move on myself, but not because I have worn out the novel – just my welcome.

    I’m looking forward to your Bras Cubas piece.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you for your thoughts, which were of course not parasitical but — my first thought is Lego-like, which tells you how my brain is working right now. Building on each other, is what I mean.

      *I* am looking forward to *your* Bras Cubas piece!

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