Last semester, when we read Zola, Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert for LIT 640, the one discussion that was unavoidable was that of the role of social climbing, in the greater context of social class hierarchies, in understanding the driving force of the novels and their protagonists.
Social climbing, a fear of judgement and a need to win over high-ranking individuals (and at one point an entire city, as seen at the end of Pere Goriot) mark the characterization of every protagonist in the French Realist Fiction novels we read, which made me think of the social currents that move the bourgeois society Cubas thrives in, and to an extent Cubas himself.
The connection with these French Realist authors (for me!) is further strengthened by the shout-out given by de Assis to Stendhal’s statement about his “hundred readers”– however, it’s interesting to see de Assis (via Cubas) subvert the traditional role of Realist Fiction by nonchalantly questioning whether his “Memoirs” would garner “even ten” readers, as if to avoid all traditional goals of Realist Fiction (relevant in terms of Post-colonial fiction goals). By doing this, not only does de Assis want to shed light on the complexities and hypocrisies of contemporary Brazilian society, but also seems to undermine the ever-present social climbing (traditionally, the main focus of writers such as Stendhal) by circling every situation without making a clear judgement. One such instance is the cock fight Cubas witnesses while in the company of Nha-lolo and her father.
It’s interesting that the chapter containing the incident is titled ‘Downhill’; descending Livramento Hill, Cubas tells the reader how he loses years coming down, till he is 20 years old, presumably back when he was as yet unaffected by social maneuverings. When he opens the parasol for his fiancee, after assuring us that the weather was beautiful, he refers to Borba’s philosophy, claiming that “Humanitas kissed Humanitas” (168). I interpreted Borba’s philosophy to be a sort of selfish, unscientific Darwinism that justifies all means to all self-serving ends, including broad social issues like poverty and war; this reading made me believe that Cubas is saying that in this passage, by being attentive to his fiancee, he is protecting his own interests, and in doing so, goes back to a time when he didn’t care about anyone’s needs as much as his own, and therefore feels so much younger.
At the same time, Nha-lolo herself, who is far younger than Cubas actually is, is shown to be anxious to leave the hill and the vicinity of the cock fight– We are told why in the following chapter: she is wholly concerned with the way her father reveals his (to her, as described by Cubas) low-brow fascination with the street cock fight (“A Very Delicate Intention”) that may seem “unworthy” to Cubas himself. In this chapter, Cubas finds in Nha-lolo’s discomfort and her continuous urge to better herself good reason to marry her, as if he would be doing her a favor. This again is a reference to the concept of Humanitas, and shows us just how de Assis turns the traditional idea of social climbing on its head.
At the end of “Downhill”, Cubas describes the two roosters who were in the fight. We are told that he is unable to identify immediately which bird won and which one lost, as both birds look defeated. The onlookers and bettors are elated however, and discuss the various triumphs of both roosters, who nonetheless are nothing more than commodities to them. This is ultimately the Marxist conversation on ownership of the means of production, and the bourgeois vs. the proletariat. However, what is really interesting is the final lines of this chapter:
“I went along in vexation. Nha-lolo was especially vexed.”
Here, the fate of the birds and what it metaphorically stands for is only a mere annoyance for Cubas and his fiancee– Nha-lolo in fact, is only vexed because of what her father’s enthusiasm reveals about her origins, which (to her) are far more humble than those of Cubas’. Cubas himself “goes along” with it all, abdicating all agency, criticizing and yet at the same time washing his hands of the inherent class-based bias at work, both within his relationship to Nha-lolo as well as within the group of onlookers and bettors. I believe that de Assis does such a fantastic job of subverting every possible for/against argument w.r.t. social climbing and class struggle that the very act challenges the entire idea of social hierarchy (as per Western European tradition) itself.