Capitu has been portrayed as a woman with “a gypsy’s eyes,
oblique and sly.” The most intriguing female character of the Brazilian literature is
celebrating its 100th anniversary. Has Capitu betrayed her husband Bentinho or not? This
burning question has tormented generation upon generation of critics and readers.
By Elma-Lia Nascimento
Arguably the most celebrated Brazilian novel, as well as the most intriguing female
character of the nation’s literature, are celebrating their 100th anniversary. She is
Capitu, the wife and object of desire and suspicion of Dom Casmurro, the male character
who gives name to the Machado de Assis’s book. Brazil is also celebrating the 160th
anniversary of the writer’s birth. Machado de Assis, considered Brazil’s greatest writer
ever, was born on June 21, 1839.
Dom Casmurro was published in 1899 by H. Garnier, Livreiro-Editor and printed in
Paris as all other books from that publishing house at the time. Only in the following
year, however, did the book appear in Brazil. Few people were impressed by it and it would
take many years before the critics and the public would go back to its pages and find
there what today almost every critic considers to be Assis’s masterpiece.
The book opens reporting facts that happened in an afternoon of 1857 when Capitu was 14
and Bentinho (Dom Casmurro), 15. The narrator is Bentinho (Bento Santiago) who tells the
story late in life. He is a seminarian, who against the wishes of his mother who had vowed
to make him a priest, abandons a religious career to become a lawyer and marry his
childhood sweetheart, Capitu (Capitolina Pádua). For many years it seems like an
uneventful tale and similar to many other families who are happy or seem to be. Capitu and
Bentinho have a boy, Ezequiel, and the three of them lead a petit-bourgeois and peaceful
life with family and friends.
One day, Escobar, a family friend, drowns and Dom Casmurro notices a tear for the dead
man in Capitu’s eyes. From that day on, suspicion and jealousy start corroding his soul
and little by little he puts together—always without proof—a puzzle that shows
him how Capitu has betrayed him with his best friend. All of this is aggravated by the
fact that there is some physical similarity between Escobar and Bentinho’s son.
A tortured life leads to the separation of the couple while suspicions of having been
betrayed make Dom Casmurro obsessed and taciturn. Capitu never has a chance to expose her
own viewpoint in the book. This ambiguity that permeates the book seems to be one of the
biggest attractions of the story even to today.
Capitu has been portrayed as a woman with “a gypsy’s eyes, oblique and sly”.
In one of the most memorable lines of the novel, the author ponders in length about the
eyes of the protagonist: “Lovers’ language, give me an exact and poetic comparison to
say what those eyes of Capitu were like. No image comes to mind that doesn’t offend
against the rules of good style, to say what they were and what they did to me. Undertow
eyes? Why not? Undertow. That’s the notion that the new expression put in my head. They
held some kind of mysterious, active fluid, a force that dragged one in, like the undertow
of a wave retreating from the shore on stormy days. So as not to be dragged in, I held on
to anything around them, her ears, her arms, her hair, spread about her shoulders; but as
soon as I returned to the pupils of her eyes again, the wave emerging from them grew
towards me, deep and dark, threatening to envelop me, draw me in and swallow me up.”
Dom Casmurro graduated from law school in Europe and the narrative seems like a long
accusatory piece by a prosecutor asking for the condemnation of a voiceless and lawyerless
Has Capitu betrayed Bentinho or not? This burning question has tormented generation
upon generation of critics and readers. Books have been written about the subject,
seminaries and conferences have discussed it, but no one believes that an answer will ever
be found . According to one of the top experts in Machado de Assis, Brazilian writer
Antônio Carlos Villaça, the novelist “took this secret to his tomb.” In his
1967 book O Enigma de Capitu (Capitu’s Enigma), Eugênio Gomes concluded he
couldn’t reach a verdict.
Some scholars believe that Dom Casmurro is a veiled self-portrait of the author himself
who is believed to have fallen in love with Georgina, the wife of his good friend and
renowned writer José de Alencar. The publication in 1897 by Sílvio Romero of Machado
de Assis, a very critical book, would have encouraged the author to write what he
thought was his most intense and vivid story that he kept under wraps until then. The
death of Alencar in 1877 had profoundly shaken Assis.
The ABL (Academia Brasileira de Letras—Brazilian Academy of Letters), which was
created and first presided over by Machado de Assis, has planned a series of conferences
and debates to celebrate the Dom Casmurro’s centennial. The so-called Ciclo Machado
de Assis (Machado de Assis Cycle) will have several of the 40 Academy members addressing
different topics on the author.
On April 21, there will also be a ceremony when the remains of Assis and his wife
Carolina will be transferred to the ABL mausoleum at the São João Batista cemetery in
Rio. Arnaldo Niskier, ABL’s president, emphasized that the Academy is intent on
celebrating the life and work of its founder. Said Niskier, “We are absolutely
committed to these celebrations to the greatest Brazilian writer ever.”