‘The Alienist’ by Machado de Assis – The Out-of-Control Psychiatrist


‘The Alienist’ by Machado de Assis (1882) – 86 pages


Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis is a literary giant.

No one else has written such playful yet psychologically astute satires as Machado de Assis (born 1839, died 1908). His two masterpieces are ‘Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas’ (also known as ‘Epitaph of a Small Winner’) and ‘Don Casmurro’, but much of his other work including some of his stories have withstood the test of time. A new version of his collected stories translated by Margaret Jill Costa and Robin Patterson was just published in June of this year.

Philip Roth called Machado de Assis “a great ironist and a tragic comedian”. Mischievous irony is certainly one of the main devices Machado de Assis uses to connect with his readers.

Usually when Machado de Assis is mentioned, he is called the greatest writer from Brazil or the greatest writer from Latin America. Now it is time to recognize that Machado de Assis is one of those great world class fiction writers who belongs in the same league as such writers as Tolstoy and Dickens and Austen.

I recently read the humorous novella ‘The Alienist’ which can best be described as a playful attack on the science of psychology. The word “alienist” is almost archaic, and the word “psychiatrist” can be used in its place.

A young man named Simão Bacamarte leaves his home village of Itaguai in Brazil to pursue advanced medical studies in Portugal. After completing his education and becoming a brilliant physician, he decides to return to Itaguai and to pursue original research in the new field of psychology. The people in his hometown are happy to have this distinguished doctor back, and he builds a madhouse called Casa Verde for which he picks out residents of his hometown whom he determines are insane and should be locked up. The towns people realize there are some whose madness requires them to be taken off the streets and thus approve of the doctor’s work. At first everything is fine, but soon the doctor decides insanity is more prevalent than he thought, and he locks up more and more of the town residents.

Madness, the object of my studies, was, until now, considered a mere island in an ocean of reason; I am now beginning to suspect that it is a continent.”

The townspeople rebel. By this time three-quarters of the townspeople have been locked up in Casa Verde. The doctor decides to reverse his strategy which you can read all about in the novella.

‘The Alienist’ is a sharp and amusing story about this out-of-control psychiatrist who determines those who are mad and those who are not, but this novella doesn’t quite reach the superior level of those two novels I mentioned above. Start with either of them.


Grade : A-


9 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve been a bit of a cheapskate: I’ve bought the bilingual Portugese/English edition of this for the Kindle…for $1.31

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      I admire you for that. Some of my favorite authors wrote in Portuguese including Saramago, Eca de Queiros, and Machado de Assis (also Jorge Amado), but I have never considered learning Portuguese. 🙂



  2. I learned a scrap of it when we made a side trip to Portugal from Spain because the Portuguese can be a bit nationalistic about their language apparently. But of course I don’t remember a word of it now.



  3. I love Machado de Assis, and thought this was marvellous! I’ve also read Dom Casmurro and A Chapter of Hats, a collection of short stories. I must confess the collected stories is very tempting….

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Kaggsy,
      The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis was very tempting for me too until I found out that it is 992 pages long. I suppose I could change my blog to ‘The Machado de Assis World’. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person


  4. I waited until my billet was written to read your review.

    I loved this. Truly wonderful literature. It was my first encounter with Machado de Assis and it won’t be my last.

    I’m always in awe of writers who manage to pack so much in 100 pages.



  5. […] And, last but not least, see Tony’s thoughts about The Alienist here. […]



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