Race and modernity in O Cortiço by Aluísio de Azevedo

May Bletz
Brock University, Canada
When Aluísio de Azevedo first published O Cortiço in 1890, it was immediately recognized as an important literary event. Still on every mandatory reading list in Brazil today, the novel is traditionally interpreted as a high point in Brazilian naturalism, heavily influenced by French deterministic thinkers and focusing on class conflict. Already in his own time, literary critics emphasized the similarities between O cortiço and Émile Zola’s works,1 particularly L’Assomoir (1877). Subsequent critics have followed this pattern, generally focusing on the descriptions of Rio de Janeiro’s underclasses.2While the miserable conditions of Rio de Janeiro’s poor are described in great detail, issues of racial politics, equally important in the plot, have generally been neglected by literary critics. It is surprising how this novel has barely been read for its racial matter. Brazil may have imported more African slaves than America, the feeling went, but according to Brazilian elitist opinion, long shared with foreign scholars, it had not created a society that created excuses (political belief as well as race) for dehumanizing measures of exclusion. Such argumentation seems much less conclusive when viewed through today’s lens. It is certainly true that Brazil lacks the history of racial hatred that characterizes the United States. But lack of racial hatred does not turn out to have led to lack of racial discrimination.3 Indeed, as I hope to show, racial prejudices and deterministic legacies form a fundamental part of a novel as O Cortiço and should be recognized as such.Rather than seeing Latin American naturalist novels as imitations of European counterparts, one should consider nineteenth century Latin American intellectual endeavours as appropriating existing models for their own unique situations and means. Debates about race were of course prominent in Brazilian culture of that time, and only partly correspond to European positivist and deterministic ideas.

I thus place the novel within a specifically Brazilian context, and suggest that O Cortiço is not a mere imitation of European fashions and philosophies, but that it should also be read as a reaction against the Positivist “whitening” ideologies embraced by the Brazilian elites at the time. I examine in what way Azevedo in O Cortiço4participates in these debates, partly rejecting positivist racial theories of his time, but at the same time reinforcing others.
Writing the national subject
Brazilian naturalist novelists created a more or less fictional space in which creatively conjured elements – people, forces, exogenous events – interact. They inhabited the landscape as both voyeur and active participant, and their writing comprised an act of creation – not just of literary art but, in certain ways, of society itself. Writing begins as a response to a fear, an attempt to fill in the gaps in the projected structure of the nation. Still surprisingly readable for a 21st century audience,O Cortiço is a deeply pessimistic reflection of the social ills that plagued the Carioca society of the period right before Abolition, the 1870s. The novel follows the lives of Portuguese immigrants and their transformation as they adapt to Brazilian society. The main places of action are the cortiço (a type of tenement buildings around a courtyard) São Romão, and the fancy house of a successful Portuguese immigrant, Miranda. A large part of the plot deals with who will be allowed to stay in the cortiço, who must leave, who “makes” it as a Brazilian and even more, who “makes” it as a respectable citizen, and at what cost. Thus, narrative fiction provides Azevedo with a laboratory of prospective fantasies in which he projects solutions to the contradictions that impede the constitution of a homogeneous national subject.

Encouragement of European immigration had by the end of the nineteenth century become national policy in Brazil. Brazilian authorities desired and promoted immigration, believing that European races would automatically bring progress to the country. Representative of the government’s optimistic attitude is Menezes e Souza’s Theses sobre colonização do Brazil, from 1875.5 A large influx of preferably Northern European people, Menezes e Souza thought, would introduce high culture to Brazil and set it on the road to modernization. These immigrants would form the “seed” of municipal life from which would spring the “powerful force of homogeneity and cohesion that will pull together and assimilate” the population at large.

However dissenting voices were also heard, such as Raymundo Nina Rodrigues’ proposals for a strict racial segregation. Much time would have to pass before the Brazilian people would truly be one, and in the meantime, different laws and rules should be applied to each different racial group (Peard 102-104). It became soon apparent the multiplication of economic, cultural, and social effects of the originally desired immigration created complex and unexpected situations. The urban lower class grew both in absolute terms and in proportion to the decline of slavery after mid-century. These non-slaves were internally diverse and ethnically complex, but in Rio de Janeiro an increasing proportion were Portuguese immigrants. An important part of O Cortiço are the lives and legacies of these Portuguese immigrants in Rio de Janeiro a decade before Abolition.

The desire to imagine the nation in biological terms, to define in new terms who did and who did not belong, all these aspects were shown in eugenics as belonging to sexuality and race. Thus, within the institution of marriage, woman becomes paradigmatic of the symbiotic relation between nature, genealogical continuity and the State. The life stories of the immigrants, their sexual relationships and offspring, are therefore directly linked to the future of the country.
Positivism in Brazil
The awarding of citizenship to large numbers of newcomers signals a new notion of nation and calls for acts of re-imagining a common identity. According to Michel Foucault, the modern State requires a continuous production of an “internal enemy” in order to justify its disciplinary functions. The production of an internal frontier as an instrument to distinguish between individuals, to determine and separate “identities” and to create divisions within society will be, according to Foucault, one of the principal functions of the modern State (17-49). The modern State is in charge of the “health” of the population and will need the [re]creation of internal differences that will permit the control of individuals and groups. These differences signal and define certain people and or groups as undesirables, unfits, and even enemies, whose elimination will restore the threatened national health.

Brazilian Positivist ideas coincided with Abolition in 1888, whose aftermath saw the mobilization of numbers of former slaves from rural areas towards the cities. Around the same time, foreign immigration started, and both movements caused a wide process of destabilization of traditional society and culture. Displacement plays a crucial role in O Cortiço, both in the fate of the black slave Bertoleza as in the lives of the Portuguese immigrants linked to the cortiço São Romão. For Azevedo, a tireless abolitionist, Brazil will never become a modern country unless it addresses its heritage of slavery. How could immigrants possibly improve their new country, if all the local institutions are set on destroying whatever modernizing effects immigration could possibly have? What will the result of this mingling of white immigrants with free blacks and mulattos bring?

In Brazil “biological” and medical discourses that flourished towards the end of the nineteenth century offered a platform for the nation to organize and institutionalize a national identity. These differences between desirables and undesirables were assumed to be found in the body, in racial makeup. The particular “races” that concerned these reformers were not preexisting, discrete, biological entities but social-political categories or perceptions created through scientific work and the social relations of power. Brazilian doubts about the country’s racial identity had long been reinforced by racist interpretations of Brazil from abroad and for French Positivist thinkers, Brazil was held up as a prime example of the “degeneration” that occurred in a racially mixed, tropical nation (Peard 84). Brazilian intellectuals looked inward to ask whether they too had a “race spirit” that defined them and gave them a sense of national identity comparable to that of European nations. When they did examine themselves in this way, only too often they concluded that their countries were wanting in a true “nationhood” on which to erect a proper nationalism. Thus, many of the elites were inclined to think Brazil was not yet a proper nation. Most, however, did believe in the malleable nature of human beings and this belief was the crucial underpinning to the process of whitening.

According to Thomas Skidmore one should be careful not to confuse racial ideologies in the USA with Latin American “whitening” policies. In Brazil, racial attribution depended on how the person looked and on the particular economic circumstances of that person, which led to the racial fluidity for which Brazil is famous. In other words: social class and material wealth will directly influence the racial categorization of a subject; as Skidmore puts it, one can be transformed from “black” into “white”. Thus, according to elite ideologies, Brazil’s African population could be whitened through intimate contact with superior white culture, and the goal was to find a policy of “ethnic integration” which would then miraculously resolving Brazil’s racial problems (1993: 207). Women would be integrated in Brazilian society through their reproductive capacity. Since all black women were supposed to prefer having lighter skinned children, they would enjoy – or at least see the economical advantage of having sexual relations with white men (1993: 191-192).

This elite theory of branqueamento or whitening has been fundamental in understanding Brazilian culture. However, as Jeffrey Lesser points out, the theory impliedsthat anyone without African or indigenous ancestry is, by definition, in the “white” category. Brazilianists all too often forget to question these fixed, a-historical categories of “black” and “white.” Jeffrey Lesser argues that although “whiteness” remained one important component for inclusion in the Brazilin “race,” what it actually meant to be “white” shifted markedly between 1850 and 1950 (1-12).

What these urban poor shared in the eyes of the elites were negative attributes: they had neither wealth, nor status, nor power. Taking a closer look at O Cortiço, it becomes clear that the division between “black” and “white” is by no means simple. The different versions of “whiteness” are represented by the three main Portuguese immigrant characters. The first immigrant, Miranda, already has had some economic success at the beginning of the novel, largely because of the dowry of his Brazilian born wife, Estela, but in return he has to tolerate her numerous infidelities. He moves to the neighborhood of Botofago, escaping the increasingly shady downtown and hopes to establish a more aristocratic lifestyle. It is made clear from the beginning that Miranda is decadent and will not invigorate his adopted country in any way:

[A] mulher, Dona Estela, senhora pretensiosa e com fumaças de nobreza, já não podia suportar a residência no centro da cidade como também sua menina, a Zulmirinha, crescia muito pálida e precisava de largueza para enrijar e tomar corpo. (7)

In spite of her flagrant infidelities, Miranda stays married to Estela:

Prezava, acima de tudo, a sua posição social e tremia só com a idéia de ver-se novamente pobre, sem recursos e sem coragem para recomeçar a vida, depois de se haver habituado a umas tantas regalias e afeito à hombridade de português rico que já não tem pátria na Europa. (6)

Miranda is a typcial old fashioned immigrant who still believes himself to be one of the conquistadores. For him “o Brasil era uma cavalgadura carregada de dinheiro, cujas rédeas um homem fino empolgava facilmente” (19).However, his marriage confronts him with the reality that he is far from a conqueror of Brazil and has become yet another slave: “Pensara fazer-se senhor do Brasil e fizera-se escravo de uma brasileira mal-educada e sem escrúpulos de virtude! Imaginara-se talhado para grandes conquistas, e não passava de uma vitima ridícula e sofredora!” (19). To fill his empty, meaningless life, he buys himself the title of baron and pretends to be an aristocrat. His whitening process becomes complete when he literally buys himself respectability in order to enter into a social class he has no right to belong to, a corrupt and unproductive social class and transforms himself into a Brazilian that will not make any big contributions towards modernizing the country.

The second immigrant, João Romão, is on the other hand an extremely hard worker and businessman. He starts out among the poorest of the poor and can in no way be regarded as the same type of “white” as Miranda. He amasses his fortune by starting a small restaurant and cheating customers. Next to Miranda’s pretentious house, he starts a cortiço or tenement, stealing materials and tools, exploiting workers and renting houses to lower-income families and tubs for laundresses. He contributes to change and progress to a much larger extent than Miranda does. But João Romão too will eventually become “Brazilianized.” He imitates the cruel Brazilian race relations – after all, the novel is set in the 1870s, before the official abolition of 1888 – and makes a slave, Bertoleza, believe that she has brought her freedom. Having won her trust, he takes care of her wages, lending the money against high interests and keeping the profits for himself. Bertoleza also becomes his concubine, cooking and cleaning for him for free. He thus achieves his wealth through the exploitation of the black population, just as the Brazilians themselves had always done. Even João Romão, who never washes or changes clothes and wears wooden clogs instead of shoes, will eventually learn table manners and dress himself appropriately in order to marry Miranda’s daughter. The way he disposes of Bertoleza – he eventually gives her over to the authorities stating that she is a runaway slave whom he his returning to her rightful master – is a very cynical comment on Azevedo’s part on the relations between immigrants and slaves. It is not so much that João Romão believes in racial inferiority. Rather, he is described as being consumed by avarice, to the point of insanity, considered at that time to be a typical immigrant’s disease: “Aquilo já não era ambição, era uma molestia nervosa, uma loucura, um desespêro de acumular, de reduzir tudo a moeda” (30).

Immigrants like João Romão come to Brazil in order to achieve material wealth at whatever cost and therefore will be interested neither in politics nor in the general well-being of the adopting country. Too much passion for money corrupts and where it abounds, patriotism is absent. This moral flaw is at once the cause and the effect of his behavior, and it is produced by Brazil. Carioca society fails to expose the immigrant’s dishonesty, both in his treatment of Bertoleza as in his illegal building of the cortiço.

The beginning of the cortiço is clearly clandestine. Not only does Joao Romão appropriate the savings and labor of the supposedly freed slave Bertoleza; all the construction is done with stolen materials:

Que milagres de esperteza e de economia não realizou ele nessa construção! Servia de pedreiro, amassava e carregava barro, quebrava pedra; pedra, que o velhaco, fora de horas, junto com a amiga, furtavam à pedreira do fundo, da mesma forma que subtraiam o material das casas em obra que havia por ali perto. (2) … Nada lhes escapava, nem mesmo as escadas dos pedreiros, os cavalos de pau, o banco ou a ferramenta dos marceneiros. […] E o fato é que aquelas três casinhas, tão engenhosamente construídas, foram o ponto de partida do grande cortiço de São Romão. (6)

The cortiço becomes a cyst and its womb-like, procreating quality is often foregrounded:

E naquela terra encharcada e fumegante, naquela umidade quente e lodoso, começou a minhorcar, a esfervilhar, a crescer, um mundo, uma coisa viva, uma geração, que parecia brotar espontânea, ali mesmo, daquele lameiro, e multiplicar-se como larvas no estêrco. (33)

The cortiço thus becomes the anti-city, a result of urban modernization that cannot be controlled. It is well documented how, in typical Naturalist fashion, Azevedo researched his subject matter as if he were a objective scientist, a doctor searching for a cure of a sick patient, the nation’s body. Ethnographer and sociologist Gilberto Freyre for instance, affirmed that:

Deixou Aluísio Azevedo no seu Cortiço um retrato disfarçado em romance que é menos ficção literária que documentação sociológica de uma fase e de um aspecto característico da formação brasileira.(607)

According to Artur Azevedo, his brother’s “scientific” attitude was completely new in Brazilian letters of that time:

Os brasileiros que até hoje se têm esgrimido no romance [ . . . ] escolheram sempre uma sociedade convencional [ . . . ] ao que parece receavam enlamear as botas penetrando noutros lugares que não fossem os salões de Botafogo [ . . . ] Aluísio Azevedo foi aos cortiços, metóse entre essa população heterogênea das estalagens.6

A friend recalls how Azevedo disguised himself in order to do his “fieldwork”:

Os primeiros apontamentos para O Cortiço foram colhidos em minha companhia em 1884, numas excursões para “estudar costumes,” nas quais saímos disfarçados com vestimenta popular: tamanco sem meia, velhas calças de zuarte remendadas camisas de meia rotas nos cotovelos, chapéus forrados e cachimbos no canto da boca.7

Azevedo disguises himself as if he were a spy to gain access to this “other” Rio. Amy Chazkel calls this methodology of collecting stories and entering unfamiliar territory such as tenement blocks in the line of duty a kind of proto-ethnography. The patio is converted into the public space for the poor people, where the cultural transactions between agricultural tradition, immigrant backgrounds and a growing urban modernity took place. In journalistic descriptions of the late nineteenth century, the cortiço appears as a foreign cyst in the body of the supposedly civilizing city, such as in the following article, “Saúde pública e limpeza da cidade,” which appeared in Gazeta de notícias, on June 18, 1876:

O estudo da vida nos cortiços e a estatística de seus habitantes, daria assunto por si só para largas observações. Dentro desta cidade em que estamos, há outras pequenas cidades que ninguém vê, a não serem os moradores. No meio de uma quadra de casas, há um pequeno portão, com um longo corredor, e no fim um pequeno pátio circundado de verdadeiras pombais onde vive uma população. É aí o cortiço.8

With these research methods, Brazilian naturalist novelists created a more or less fictional space in which creatively conjured elements – people, forces, exogenous events – interact in a given sequence. Azevedo inhabits the city as both voyeur and active participant, and his writing comprises an act of creation – not just of literary art but, in certain ways, of Carioca urban society itself.

City planning was one of the projects most closely linked to this desire for modernizing and improving the race and this explains that the rise of city planning took place in the same period in which government began to actively intervene in social questions of racial improvement. According to Holloway (274), the political elite of Brazil felt the need for a showcase for their successful administration of the state, and logically it was Rio de Janeiro. In their eager embrace of the neocolonial order, the elite needed to deal with the social menace of that order as cities like Rio de Janeiro grew and changed. As the city’s poor population swelled, the local and national elites undertook the programmatic repression of many forms of popular culture and police vigilance over the daily life of the poorer classes.

The lawlessness of the cortiço is contagious and can destroy the city and it soon became clear that many European immigrants did not find their way to material riches. The presence of poor white immigrants in the cities was disturbing to those who wanted to “civilize” Brazil. What was previously thought to be non-existent became a reality: the existence of poor Europeans, whose social conditions were barely distinguishable from those of blacks, personifying forms of social decadence that had been attributed exclusively to blacks. The reformist professionals assumed that social ills accumulated at the bottom of the racial and social hierarchies – that the poor were poor because they were unhygienic, dirty, ignorant, and hereditarily unfit. Discourses about the Portuguese colonizers change dramatically: from former, white colonizers they are now second rate immigrants, often described as ugly crooks with no moral scruples. Their close proximity to the displaced former slaves seems to contaminate them with “blackness.” Indeed, these immigrants (largely from the Minho region in Northern Portugal and lighter skinned then many of the original colonizers) are occasionally compared to African slaves. In 1870, the newspaper O Povo, for example, published an article titled “Paralelo entre africanos e portugueses,” in which the author affirms that:

Se diferença se pode dar no seu físico, certo que na moralidade das ações, muitas vezes o africano excede ao português.[ . . .] O português que para aqui vem é réu de polícia, ladrão de estrada, chefe de quadrilhas, passador de papel falso, galegos que correspondem ao que chamamos negro cangueiro.9

In her study on Portuguese immigration to Brazil in the late nineteenth century, Gladys Ribeiro focuses on images of the Portuguese in newspapers and criminal trials and makes a convincing argument that anti-Lusitanism in Rio is connected to the resistance to this disciplined market economy. As the largest immigrant group, they replaced the slaves in the workplace. The Portuguese that came to Brazil by the late nineteenth century stayed in urban centers, mainly Rio de Janeiro. This immigration coincided with the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the proclamation of the Republic (27). These events inspired anti-Portuguese sentiments, and instead of being explorers and colonizers, these new Portuguese became increasingly known as “foreigners,” monarchists and conspirators against the Republic. They are seen as deeply conservative, occasionally destabilizing elements in Carioca life through the gruelling demands they made upon their employees (13).

Immigrants and former slaves started living in similar conditions. After mid-century,10 as Botafogo, Tijuca, and other more commodious outlying areas began to be accessible as middle class residential enclaves, many old downtown buildings were converted into tenements known formally as estalagens and informally ascortiços, or beehives. By police count, as of 1875 some 33,000 people – more than 10 percent of the downtown population- lived in cortiços and many more incabeças de porco, rooming houses, recalling the maze of cavities left after boiling down the skull of a pig for headcheese. (The name of the rival cortiço at the end of Azevedo’s novel, is Cabeça de gato, a cat’s head, an ironic indicator of its tenants’ desperate poverty)

The third Portuguese immigrant, Jerônimo, is an apparently a model immigrant of the type the Brazilian politicians who favored immigration imagined. Jerônimo starts out being practically on the same level as the slaves: “tinha que sujeitar-se a emparelhar com os negros escravos e viver com eles no mesmo meio degradante, encurralado como uma besta, sem aspirações, nem futuro, trabalhando eternamente para outro”. (54)

However, through his hard work and traditional Portuguese country values, he becomes a stonecutter, who lives in the tenement and works for João Romão. Initially he is initially a virtuous family man devoted to his wife, Piedade. The couple tries to maintain their Portuguese rural culture and resist assimilation by being extremely hardworking, virtuous, listening to fado, eating Portuguese rather than Brazilian food and having a different concept of cleanliness. As a stonecutter, Jerônimo tries to tame Rio’s unbridled nature, breaking down its mountains for granite that will be used for buildings for the quickly expanding city. He appears looking for a job and sees the quarry where people are working:

Aquêles homens gotejantes de suor, bêbedos de calor, desvairados de insolação, a quebrarem, a espicaçarem, a torturarem a pedram pareciam um punhado de demónios revoltados na sua impotência contra o impassível gigante que os contemplava com desprêzo, imperturbável…(48)

In this titanic struggle between nature and progress, Jerônimo however, fails to be impressed by nature’s force, and examines the quarry, explaining to his future employer how profits could be greatly increased: “O membrudo cacouqueiro havia chegado à fralda do orgulhoso monstro de pedra; tinha-o cara a cara, mediu-o de alto a baixo, arrogante, num desafio surdo” (49). He is perceived as the incarnation of order, progress, and stability, but also as foreign, “unbrazilian”:

E o canto daquela guitarra estrangeira era um lamento choroso e dolorido, eram vozes magoadas, mais tristes do que uma oração em alto-mar, quando a tempestade agita as negras asas homicidas, e as gaivotas doidejam assanhadas, cortando a treva com os seus gemidos pressagos, tontas como se estivessem fechadas dentro de uma abóbada de chumbo. (58)

Nevertheless, this fecund union between nature and progress quickly deteriorates as Jerônimo falls for his neighbor, the beautiful free-spirited Rita, a mulatta from Bahia, and abandons his family for her. He meets her in the courtyard, when he was playing fados on his guitar and all of a sudden hears music from Bahia and sees her dancing: “Naquela mulata estava o grande mistério, a síntese das impressões que ele recebeu chegando aqui: ela era a luz ardente do meio-dia…era o veneno e era o açúcar gostoso” (82). Rita, through her mixed African and Portuguese heritage, seems to embody the spirit of Brazil, sweet but dangerous, always seductive, “volúvel como toda a mestiça” (240). Out of love for Rita, Jerônimo commits a murder and abandons his family. His process of becoming a Brazilian is described in no uncertain terms: “adquiria desejos, tomava gôsto aos prazeres…resignando-se, vencido, às imposicões do sol e do calor, muralha de fogo com que o espírito eternamente revoltado do último tambor entrincheirou a pátria contra os conquistadores aventureiros” (101). Brazil’s sun and climate are capable of utterly destroying immigrants and their ambitions, as if its nature was a curse against foreign invaders.

There are a few minor “foreign” characters in the novel, but their contribution to progress seems to be nil. The Italians who work in the pasta factory are consistently compared to “parrots” and there is a brief mention of a Chinese peddler selling shrimps who happens to stumble upon a fight and gets thrown out: “Era o que faltava que viesse também aquêle salameque do inferno para azoinar uma criatura mais do que já estava!” (100). For Azevedo, the immigrant seems “parrot-like,” slightly ridiculous and forced to participate in corrupt Carioca society. Just as the Brazilian-born poor, they are prone to criminality, alcoholism, and disease. It is casually mentioned that the Italian immigrants Delporto and Pompeo both died of yellow fever, along with three of their companions (169).

In a clear nod to French naturalism (anti-Semitism was not an issue in Brazil at that time) there is an ugly and stingy Jew, Libório, who is tolerated and even fed by the tenants of the cortiço, but fails to do anything in return: “Na estalagem diziam todavia que Libório tinha dinheiro aferrolhado, contra o que ele protestava ressentido, jurando a sua extrema penaria” (74). While João Romão made his fortune by investing his savings, Libório’s (supposedly typically Semitic?) capitalism of saving and scraping by, then, turns out to be sterile. It is not until Libório’s João Romão finds the money and discovers that a large part of it is outdated: “sofreu uma dolorosa decepção: quase todas as cédulas estavam já prescritas pelo Tesouro; veio-lhe então o receio de que a melhor parte do bolo se achasse inutilizada” (226). João Romão decides to use the bills as counterfeit money and thus be able to finance the rebuilding of the cortiço and will be the only part of Libório’s legacy that will have any impact on Brazilian society.
Family values: the future of Brazil
Degeneration was seen as the national disease, an ailment that connected individual health to national well-being. The desire to imagine the nation in biological terms, to define in new terms who did and who did not belong, all these aspects were shown in eugenics as belonging to sexuality and race. The notion of sexual gender helped to articulate the notion of race and vice versa, as it was through sexual reproduction that the modification and transmission of the hereditary component of future generations took place. Thus, woman becomes paradigmatic of the symbiotic relation between nature, genealogical continuity and the State. Unsurprisingly, promiscuity in the cortiço is notorious and prostitution was rampant. All three Portuguese immigrants in the novel fail to found a family life suitable for the nation and thus fail to contribute to Brazil’s future in any positive way. Miranda suspects that his daughter is not his, and is unable to feel any fatherly feelings for her; the girl is descibed as “crescia muito pálida” (7). To fulfill his “whitening process” João Romão marries this daughter in spite of his having lived with Bertoleza for many years. He can make the betrayed slave disappear by using the very same laws that are supposed to protect and stabilize the country and hands her over to the authorities as a runaway slave. Finally Piedade, the one legitimate spouse, becomes a prostitute and an alcoholic in this cruel Brazilian society when Jerônimo abandons her in favor of his mistress.

Azevedo mostly rejects determinist notions in the portrayal of the male characters, but his attitude towards women, particularly the immigrant women is still largely dictated by the supposedly scientific and biological ideologies of his time. Although I agree with Elizabeth Marchant that Azevedo shows a peculiarly hostile attitude towards his female characters in general (445-53), I suggest that this reliance upon deterministic notions when dealing with female characters is by no means unique, but deeply tied to the rhetoric of modernization itself. The equation of woman with nature and tradition, already a commonplace of early modern thought, received a new impetus from the popularity of Darwinian models of evolutionary development, residing in an explicit contrast between a striving restless masculinity and an organic, non-differentiated femininity.10 While Azevedo seems to reject deterministic conceptions of race in his male characters, his female characters on the other hand do seem to inevitably follow the path of their biological disposition. Throughout the novel, one notes a strong hostility towards female immigrant characters. For many elite Brazilian, the figure of the immigrant was closely related to modernity, progress, racial change. However, the construction of the female immigrant differes significantly of that of her male counterpart. The immigrant woman is inevitably trapped; as a female she is assumed to be unchanging, authentic, but her immigrant status makes her a suspect holder of any national tradition. She is supposed to represent both continuity, as a female, and rupture/modernity, as an immigrant and thus seems trapped, caught in either insanity or prostitution.

There are several immigrant women immigrant women in the novel, but I will focus on the two extremes: Léonie and Piedade, Jerônimo’s long suffering wife who descends into alcoholism and insanity. The French prostitute Léonie is interested only in extracting money from her suitors. This woman has become anti-nature herself and has come to equal money since both money and woman are capable of contaminating. This prostitute is seen as the tyrannical symbol of an unbridled female sexuality linked to contamination, disease, and the breakdown of social hierarchies in the modern city. The prostitute is an insistently visible reminder of the potential anonymity of women in the modern city and the loosening of sexuality from familial and communal bonds. Léonie is artifice, appearance without substance, and even dyes the hair of an adopted girl blond: “French hair” (118). She is also lesbian, she rapes a young girl in the tenement, lures her into prostitution, and will eventually offer to take care of Jerônimo and Piedade’s daughter as well. As a corrupter of family and society at large, Léonie embodies the worst fears and prejudices that surround immigrant “modern” women.

The traditional Piedade on the other hand clearly does not adapt to Brazil; she is homesick for Portugal. We learn that Piedade is jealous of Rita: “Não era a inteligência nem a razão o que lhe apontava o perigo, mas o instinto, o faro sutil e desconfiado de toda a fêmea pelas outras, quando sente o seu ninho exposto” (88). An instinctual creature because of her gender, Piedade is never allowed to adapt herself to her new country and seems curiously unaffected by it: “feita de um só bloco, compacta, inteiriça e tapada, recebia a influência do meio só por fora”(102) Her one desire was to return to Portugal after achieving financial success. As essential creatures, women apparently do not have the same possibilities of reinventing themselves in a new country as the men do. When confronted with change, they fall into the corrupting forces of prostitution or insanity and Piedade’s transformation is described as a fall into insanity, a bestialization of her character. It starts when her husband notices her rancid odor caused by lack of hygiene and his sudden distaste of her Portuguese codfish with potatoes and boiled onions. Piedade remains Portuguese and thus becomes becomes an anti-Rita, the female impersonation of Brazil, whose smell is described as “um odor sensual de trevos e plantas aromáticas”(62). Piedade’s end is particularly harsh with her fall into alcoholism, prostitution and insanity. Piedade as a female and therefore essentially anti-modern figure, will never be able to Brazilianize herself in the way her husband can and insanity is her only option.
O Cortiço represents then the failure and the inconsistency of new national alliances, the insurmountable gaps between conflicting racial groups in the heterogeneous territory of the nation. The final suicide of the slave Bertoleza can be read as the novel’s incorporation of her speechless black body into the space regulated by the national discourse and simultaneously as a figuration of the silent resistance confronted by the novelistic and ethnographic project. Bertoleza does not enter the negotiations of verbal exchange, since her legal identity as stated in her letter is fraudulent. Nor does she try to defend herself when police come to fetch her, knowing that she least of all can expect civil protection. In her silence, the national allegory is stifled. Her animal-like, barbarous body is inscribed as a major enigma yet to be solved by the discourses on nationality and continues to be exploited.

For Azevedo, attempts to modernize the country by means of European immigration are doomed to fail. Brazil is simply too overwhelming and the Europeans who come in the hope of “fazer a América,” discover that they themselves are being remade by this new, out-of-control country. For Azevedo, a tireless abolitionist, Brazil will never become a modern country unless it addresses its heritage of slavery. Immigrants will not contribute to improving their new country, if the local institutions of slavery and the pseudoaristocratic culture of the wealthy as set on destroying whatever modernizing effects immigration could possibly have. Immigrants get seduced as irrevocably and fatally as Jerônimo is seduced by Rita. Thus, Azevedo attacks the ideologies of branqueamento by pointing out that becoming “Brazilian”, rather than a privilege bestowed on the few, is an inevitable curse and destiny.
1 For instance, Azevedo’s friend Pardal Mallet focusses on plot similarities between Azevedo and Zola. “O Cortiço.” Gazeta de Notícias Rio de Janeiro 25 May 1890.

2 Criticism on Azevedo is vast, but many articles mainly consist of plot summaries and bio-bibliographical information. By far the best is the article reprinted in Antônio Cândido:O discurso e a cidade, São Paulo: Duas Cidades, 1993. Other in-depth articles are Affonso Romano De Sant’ Anna Análise estrutural de romances brasileiros (1977). For more biographical information see Jean-Yves Mérian. Aluisio Azevedo: Vida e obra. O verdadeiro Brasil do século XlX. Rio de Janeiro: Espaço e tempo, 1988. Also useful are Luiz Antonio Ferreira’s Roteiro de leitura : O cortiço de Aluísio Azevedo.São Paulo, SP : Editora Ática, 1997 and Lúcia Miguel Pereira’s Prosa de ficção (de 1870 a 1920) São Paulo, USP, 1988 (1950).

3 For more on this persistence of a Brazilian Racial democracy see Skidmore’s “Racial Mixture and Affirmative Action: The Cases of Brazil and the United States”

4 Cortiço literally means beehive and then came to signify tenement building. The title of the latest English translation The Slum (Oxford UP, 2000 is somewhat misleading; an earlier translation is more accurately titled A Brazilian Tenement. (1926).

5 João Cardoso de Menezes e Souza Theses sobre colonização do Brazil: Projecto de solução as questões sociais, que se prendem à este dificil problema. Rio de Janeiro: Typografia nacional, 1875. For more on Souza, see Lesser, “The Hidden Hyphen” in Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil 1-12.

6 Artur Azevedo. “Flocos” Correio do Povo. Rio de Janeiro 18 May 1890. Also quoted in Mérian, Aluísio Azevedo: Vida e obra. O verdadeiro Brasil do século XlX. Rio de Janeiro: Espaço e tempo, 1988, 517.

7 Pardal, Mallet. “O Cortiço.” Gazeta de Notícias Rio de Janeiro 25 May 1890, see also Mérian, 518.

8 Quoted in Mérian , 97/98

9 Quoted by Luiz Felipe de Alencastro e Maria Luiza Renaux, 310.

10 Holloway, 23-24.

11 For a more detailed discussion on this matter, see Felski, 39-40.

Alencastro, Luiz Felipe & Maria Luiza Renaux. “Caras e modos dos migrantes e imigrantes”. História da vida privada no Brasil. Volume 2: Império: a corte e a modernidade nacional. Ed. Fernando Novais. São Paulo: Companhia de Letras, 1997, 292-335.

Azevedo, Aluísio. O Cortiço. São Paulo: Livraria Martins, 1959 (1890)

Chazkel, Amy. “The Crônica, the City, and the Invention of the Underworld: Rio de Janeiro, 1889-1922”. Estudios interdisciplinarios de América Latina y el Caribe 12:1 (2001): 79-105.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Introduction. New York: Vintage, 1988

Felski, Rita. The Gender of Modernity. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995

Freyre, Gilberto. Sobrados e mucambos; decadência do patriarcado rural e desenvolvimento do urbano. 4 ed. Rio de Janeiro, José Olympio, 1968

Gordon, Colin. “Governmental Rationality: an Introduction”. The Foucault Effect. Eds. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon et al. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, 1-51.

Holloway, Thomas. Policing Rio de Janeiro: Representation and Resistance in a 19th century city. Stanford UP, 1993

Lesser, Jeffrey. Negotiating National Identity: Immigrants, Minorities, and the Struggle for Ethnicity in Brazil. Durham: Duke UP, 1999

Marchant, Elizabeth. ” Naturalism, Race, and Nationalism in Aluísio Azevedo’s O Mulato”. Hispania 83:3 (2000): 445-453.

Mérian, Jean-Yves. Aluísio Azevedo: Vida e obra. O verdadeiro Brasil do século XlX. Rio de Janeiro: Espaço e tempo, 1988

Outtes, Joel. “Disciplining Society through the City: the Genesis of City Planning in Brazil and Argentina (1894-1945)” Bulletin of Latin American Research 22:2 (2003): 137-164.

Peard, Julyan G. Race, place, and medicine: the idea of the tropics in nineteenth century Brazilian medicine. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999

Ribeiro, Gladys Sabina. Mata galegos: os portugueses e os conflitos de trabalho na República velha. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1989

Rodrigues, Raymundo Nina. As raças humanas e a responsabilidade penal no Brasil. São Paulo: Companhia editora nacional, 1938

Skidmore, Thomas E. “Racial Mixture and Affirmative Action: The Cases of Brazil and the United States” The American Historical Review 108: 5 (2003) 1391-1395.

Skidmore, Thomas E. Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought. New York: Oxford UP, 1974 reprint Duke UP, 1993

Souza, João e Cardoso de Menezes. Theses sobre colonização do Brazil: Projecto de solução as questões sociais, que se prendem à este dificil problema. Rio de Janeiro: Typografia nacional, 1875

Stephan, Nancy. The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca & London: Cornell U P, 1991


'Race and modernity in O Cortiço by Aluísio de Azevedo' has 1 comment

  1. January 14, 2022 @ 3:30 pm Fábio Liborio

    I like this tesis because the surname Liborio, also comes to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with my family, from Portugal. I defend my judaic origins yet.

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

Images are for demo purposes only and are properties of their respective owners.
Old Paper by ThunderThemes.net

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar