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,1particularly L’Assomoir (1877). Subsequent critics have followed this pattern, generally focusing on the descriptions of Rio de Janeiro’s underclasses.2
While 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