The uncommented relevance of “A escrava Isaura”



SEABRA, Alexandre Sabado [1]

SEABRA, Alexandre Sabado. The uncommented relevance of “A escrava Isaura”. Revista Científica Multidisciplinar Núcleo do Conhecimento. 04 year, Ed. 03, Vol. 08, pp. 136-148. March 2019. ISSN: 2448-0959, Access link:


The main objective of this work is to bring out essential romantic characteristics about the novel A escrava Isaura, by the writer Bernardo Guimarães, appreciated for generations, but that textbooks give little importance to the learning of Brazilian Romanticism.

Keywords: Abolitionism, Slavery, Romanticism, Regionalism.


Many have heard of one of the main works of Brazilian Romanticism: A escrava Isaura. This, which has also been enjoyed in cinema format (in 1929), theater and, mainly, telenovela twice (in 1977 and 2004), and one with approach to the origins of Isaura, A escrava mãe (in 2017). All were critical and audience success in Brazil and in the other countries in which they were transmitted.

However, the literary work has little scope in the teaching of romantic Brazilian literature, as can be seen in several textbooks in the area of literature. Therefore, the work is more valued in the television environment than as a literary element.

The plot shows the life of a beautiful, white slave who seeks to escape the lust of her master, Leôncio. When the escape is given for granted, she meets a young Álvaro of abolitionist ideas, who frees her from Leôncio and marshes her. Despite being an abolitionist work, it is observed the care with which the ouro-pretano author Bernardo Joaquim da Silva Guimarães (1825-1884) works with the character, padding the white color of the protagonist.

The main objective of this work is to show the importance, bringing a differentiated approach, for pedagogical purposes, of the characteristics of the Brazilian romantic period based on the main work of Bernardo Guimarães: A escrava Isaura.

When researching the work, it is verified that most textbooks of literature place Bernardo Guimarães’ novel in a supporting way regarding its importance in Brazilian romanticism. Many of the books don’t even mention the writer and the work.

The proposed approach brings the didactic importance of the work regarding the characteristics of the romantic period already known and taught by connoisseurs of Brazilian literature of the nineteenth century. Characteristics such as abolitionism, regionalism, the evil of the century and unconditional love, sometimes hyperbolic.


A escrava Isaura is published in the period of the abolitionist campaign of 1875, having been set in the early years of the reign of D. Pedro II – as the work itself reports in its first lines – happening, therefore, in the 1840s. It can be said that it was the perfect backdrop for the dissemination of the novel, which at the time was published in serials. These were presented periodically, almost always weekly, in newspapers.

For an adequate understanding of what will be developed here, a brief understanding of the workings of the romantic era in Brazil is needed first. According to Citelli (2007, p. 9), romanticism proved to be a vast movement, and in it lies conservatism and libertarian desire, formal innovation and the repetition of established formulas such as dating as power and radical revolt.

Thus, it is possible to find in the novel of the writer Bernardo Guimarães elements that stand out in the formula that best describes romanticism: freedom added with passion and emotion.

Abolitionism, the basis of the condoreira generation, is the characteristic element that the reader can see in the first place by associating the romantic movement with the novel A escrava Isaura. Therefore, it is necessary to have a brief understanding of what was the condoreira generation, the phase that represented the third romantic moment that elapsed between 1870 and 1890.

The authors William Cereja and Thereza Cochar (2013, p. 224) highlight the reasons that gave birth to the third romantic generation: “In Brazil, as the labor force was predominantly slave, Condoreirismo assumed abolitionist and republican features”.

José de Nicola seeks to define the third phase of Brazilian Romanticism as follows:

“Characterized by social and libertarian poetry, it reflects the internal struggles of the second half of the reign of D. Pedro II. […] The term condoreirismo is a consequence of the symbol of freedom adopted by the young romantics: the condor, an eagle that inhabits the top of the Andes mountains.” (NICOLA, 1993, p.76)

Even after the above analyses, many didatas limit the value of Condoreirism to poetry only. However, in the prose of Bernardo Guimarães, this characteristic is quite present since the work analyzed here has as protagonist a slave who desires her freedom. Although subjective in nature, the work is the social denunciation, portraying an abolitionist view of slavery still existing in Brazil.

Some characters arouse the eagers for the abolitionist and republican desire, the main one is Álvaro, who has heroic value in the text, as it is possible to analyze in the words of the character:

“Slavery itself is already an indignity, a hideous ulcer on the face of the nation, which tolerates and protects it. For my part, there is no reason i see to bring to this point the respect for an absurd prejudice, resulting from an abuse that dishonors us in the eyes of the civilized world. Be i though the first to set this noble example, which may be imitated. Serve him at least an energetic and solemn protest against a barbaric and shameful institution.” (GUIMARÃES, 2012, p. 132-133)

But it is possible to identify others, such as André. He has an intense desire to escape the Almeida farm, even if it costs him his life. Another character is Álvaro’s best friend, Dr. Geraldo. Geraldo, although abolitionist, is rational. Seeing the friend without the means to prevent Leôncio from taking Isaura back to the farm, he tries to support Álvaro:

“It is not so much, my dear Álvaro; these excesses and abuses must be consnated; but how can justice or public power devthe interior of the domestic home, and ingest in the government of the citizen’s house? that abominable and hideous mysteries, to which slavery gives way, do not pass through these devices and farms, without, no longer say justice, but not even the neighbors, they have knowledge?… As long as there is slavery, these examples will be set. A bad institution produces a multitude of abuses, which can only be extinguished by cutting evil at the root. (…) Your philosophy is beautiful, and worthy of your noble heart; But what do you want? civil laws, social conventions, are works of man, imperfect, unjust, and often cruel. The angel suffers and groans under the yoke of slavery, and the devil exudes himself to the fastigio of fortune and power.” (GUIMARÃES, 2012, p. 130-131)

Even though the writer has analyzed the mind of the Brazilian in relation to the possible conscious side regarding the cultural paradoxes derived from miscegecity, it can also be affirmed to be a subjective work regarding abolitionism, because the writer seeks to emphasize the antagonist’s tireless hunt for heroin. Moreover, there is a greater concern about the almost European beauty of the protagonist character, and not so much as the evils of the slave regime that still suffered the country.


It is important to highlight that Isaura, created by Leonius’ mother, is differentiated, having a high degree of refinement of education, culture and beauty. These elements of extreme admiration and covetousness for almost all the Maculian characters of the work: Leôncio , Henrique (Leôncio’s brother-in-law), Belchior (the farm gardener), André (also a slave on the farm) and Álvaro. However, what most Bernardo Guimarães highlights in his work is the fact that the slave is white-skinned. Bosi (1975, p. 158) explains the following about the ethnic analysis of the slave: “all the beauty of the slave is put in her not to appear black, but not as described since the first chapter”.

Isaura is directly attributed to mythological, divine characteristics, described as a perfect being, compared metaphorically and hyperbolically as an angel, a mermaid or a saint. Therefore, it is evident another romantic characteristic: the idealization of the woman. In front of the first chapter of the work, after singing in front of the piano, Isaura is thus described in the first chapter:

“The felt and misgiving notes of that singing escaping through the open windows and echoing in the distance around, make you want to meet the mermaid who so beautifully sings. If it’s not a mermaid, only an angel can sing like that.” (GUIMARÃES, 2012, p. 17)

The narrator’s description of Isaura’s wonderful and divine image follows in the course of chapter I:

“The complexion is like the ivory of the keyboard, alva that does not dazzle, blurred by a delicate nuance, which you will not know whether it is light pallor or pink fainted. The owner’s lap and the purest lavor sustains with infendable grace the wonderful bust. The loose and heavily wavy hair shrank by the shoulders in thick, light rollers, and as black fringes almost completely hid the back of the chair, which was sat back. On the calm and smooth forehead like polished marble, the light of chance was a rosy and gentle reflection; you would say mysterious lamp of alabaster, keeping in the daily bount the heavenly fire of inspiration.” (GUIMARÃES, 2012, p. 18)

Sensuality is also another refinement on the part of the writer. This seeks to describe the slave so that the reader feels inspired by the beauty of the protagonist:

The physiognomy, whose usual expression was all modesty, naivety and canuty, was enliven with unusual light; the admirably carved bust rose towering and majestic; his ecstatic eyes were full of splendor and serenity; the breasts, which until then only snagged like the waves of a lake on a quiet moonlight night, began to pant, turgid and agitated, like a chapeled ocean; his lap was targeted and slender like that of the swan, which lends itself to giving off the divine gorgeios. It was the breath of artistic inspiration, which, brushing her on her forehead, transformed her into a priestess of the beautiful, an inspired interpreter of the harmonies of heaven. (GUIMARÃES, 2012, p. 96)

Another element, also characteristic in poetry, but which is quite explicit in the novel of the writer from Minas Gerais is ultrarromanticism. This is remembered as an emotional exaggeration, almost corny, which leads the lyrical self or the character to a feeling of extreme melancolism, even desiring his own death. It is interesting to point out that Bernardo Guimarães, regarding poetic creation, knew how to take advantage of the characteristics of the ultra-romantic moment, having been friends with Álvares Azevedo (1831-1852) and Aureliano Lessa (1828-1861), who together founded the Epicureia Society. This trinity was inspired by the British poet Lord Byron.

Based on this, Cereja and Cochar state about the characteristic elements of the second romantic phase:

“The ultra-romantics despised certain themes and postures of the first generation, such as nationalism and Indianism, yet accentuated traits such as subjectivism, self-centrism and sentimentality, expanding the experience of inner probing and preparing ground for psychological research that, three decades later, would characterize Realism.” (CEREJA; COCHAR, 2013, p.200)

Thus, the presence of the evil of the century is observed mainly in the antagonist of A escrava Isaura, Leôncio.

Through the villain’s greed for Isaura, the work is developed. Leôncio could not bear to see his beloved slave, seen by him as a sexual object, meeting the expectations of another man. Álvaro is this man. The man Isaura falls in love with in Recife. The love between them comes after Isaura’s escape from The Farm of Leonius, accompanied by his father (Miguel), who years tries to buy his alforria with the commander Almeida, but to no avail.

Two types of love are found in the work: the pure, on the part of Álvaro; and the sick, by Leôncio . This does not take effort so this way to achieve its goals. He is willing to spend whatever it takes to get back his “object” of worship and greed. In the origins of Leonius it is verified that the character spends too much, demonstrating the dubious character of the antagonist of the work. This can be seen in the following excerpt from Chapter II of the work:

“Leôncio  had found since childhood in the broadness and facilities of his parents ample means of corrupting the heart and misplaced intelligence. A bad student and an incorrigible, turbulent and insubordinate child, he went from high school to high school, and passed like a cat by embers over all the preparatory, whose exams he had never saved in the shadow of the patronage. The masters did not dare to give the noble and world commander the distaste of seeing his son disapproved. Enrolled in medical school in the first year he became sick of that discipline, and as his parents did not know how to contradict him, he went to Olinda in order to attend the legal course. There after having dissipated not a small portion of the paternal fortune in the satisfaction of all his vices and mad fantasies, he also took boredom to legal studies, and was understood that only in Europe could he develop his intelligence worthily, and quench his knowledge, in pure and abundant springs. So he wrote to his father, who gave him credit and sent him to Paris, where he hoped to see him return as a new Humboldt. Installed in that vast pandemonium of luxury and pleasures, Leontius rarely, and only by desawayio, would listen to the eloquent predictions of the scarred teachers of the time, nor was he seen in museums, institutes and libraries. On the other hand, he was a regular at Jardim Mabile, as well as all the cafes and theaters most in vogue, and one of the most famous and elegant lions of the boulevards was taken.” (GUIMARÃES, 2012, p. 22)

Leôncio’ wasteful actions lead the family to a difficult financial state. This generates the marriage between Leonius and Malvina, a marriage of economic interests. However, nothing prevents him from putting his plans into practice in relation to Isaura, as can be seen in chapter VIII of the work:

“The violent and blind love that Isaura had inspired him, incited him to jump over all obstacles, to arrogate all the laws of decoriity and honesty, to mercilessly crush the heart of his loving and loving wife, to obtain the satisfaction of his frantic desires.” (GUIMARÃES, 2012, p. 66)

It is in this sick way that the reader must identify the premise of the evil of the century, especially in the outcome of the work, which presents the heroic Álvaro reaching the goal of taking all the fortune and taking over the debts of the wicked antagonist. Álvaro thus becomes the owner of all the assets of Almeida’s heir, including Isaura and all the other slaves of the farm. In a visible moment of extreme displeasure, there is the reach of madness by the non-acceptance of the antagonist due to not being able to complete his evil plan: to realize his mad passion for the slave Isaura. Which leads to suicide.

Therefore, it is perceived that the reason for suicide is not only the loss of his property, since Leôncio no longer possessed them, but the total loss of Leôncio’s possession. For Leonius, life no longer has any motivation.


The narrative begins on a farm in Campos dos Goytacazes, in the work written as Goitacases – in honor of the original inhabitants, Goitacá Indians – located on the bank of the Paraíba River, in the State of Rio de Janeiro. It is in this scenario that lives the mixed slave Isaura, daughter of the Portuguese Miguel and Juliana, favorite mucama of the wife of commander Almeida. This torments the poor mucama to death.

The second scenario is Recife, in Pernambuco. Miguel proposes to his daughter the escape and proceeds to the northern provinces in a slave ship. Thus, they arrive in Recife and adopt false names: she like Elvira; him, Anselmo.

The narrative portrays the vigor of customs and social life, and it is also possible to detect the description of the farm, coffee oligarchy, local vegetation and bird song, in a very poetic way. This makes the work discussed here regionalist. Regionalist, therefore, reveals Brazil to Brazilians, for a people, which at the time was influenced by European standards.

It should be noted that, in poetry, Bernardo Guimarães participated in the second romantic phase, producing satires and erotic poetry. He began to migrate to prose, producing a regional romantic collection, both in the description of the places and in the vocabulary model. The writer carries much of the regionalist model mainly in the works O Ermitão de Muquém, a novel written in 1858, and O seminarista, from 1872. Thus, it is stated that Bernardo Guimarães was one of the forerunners of regionalism in Brazil, but, according to João Domingues Maia and José Veríssimo, he is considered the creator of the country and regional novel:

“Bernardo Guimarães, Franklin Távora and Visconde of Taunay have in common the fact that they seek to describe a non-coastal Brazil not contaminated by the European creature. It is through them that the sertanejo definitely enters our fiction. […] Considered the creator of the country and regional novel set in Minas and Goiás, his best known works are O seminarista and A escrava Isaura.” (MAIA, 2001, p.218)

“Bernardo Guimarães is the creator of the country and regional novel, under its pure Brazilian aspect. The medium whose era, determined this trend of his romantic. But contrary to what one should expect from a writer so familiar with the environment that provided him with the themes, he is not told in the works the exact image, either in his objective representation or in his subjective idealization. In all the romantic work of Bernardo Guimarães it will be difficult to choose a page that we can cite as painting or exemplary expression of the country medium. He had higher ambitions than this genre painting, he also rehearsed himself in the historical novel and in the social intentions, with the Seminarian, where he saw the clerical celibacy affair, with the Slave Isaura, in which he dramatizes scenes of slavery […] ” (VERÍSSIMO, 1954, p.241)

A very regionalist description can be seen in the first moments of the narrative:

“It was in the early years of the reign of Mr. D. Pedro II. In the fertile and opulent municipality of Campos de Goitacases, on the edge of Paraíba, a short distance from the village of Campos, there was a beautiful and magnificent farm. (…) Far away nature was still boasted in all its primitive and selvática rudeness; but nearby, around the delightful villa, the man’s hand had converted the jungle scolding, which covered the soil, in delectable gardens and orchards, in grassand pingues pastures, shaded here and there by gigantic gameleiras, perobas, cedars and copaíbas, which attest to the vigor of the ancient forest. There was hardly a wall, a fence, no valate; garden, vegetable garden, orchard, pastures, and surrounding plantations were divided by lush and verdant hedges of bamboo, piteiras, hawthorns and gravatás, which gave the whole aspect of the most pleasant and delicious vergel. (…) It was for a beautiful and quiet October afternoon. The Sun was not yet set, and seemed to float on the horizon suspended on foam rolls of changing colors bordered by golden fevers. The saturated turn of balsamic sluices spreads along the ribs, waking up only slackly rumored by the canopy of the trees, and making the top of the coconut trees, which aimed at the lucid and tranquil waters of the river, slight. (GUIMARÃES, 2012, p. 15-16)

According to Oliveira (1963, p. 113), Bernardo Guimarães is seen as the high expression of the highest mining prosetor of romanticism, with no limits to his creativity, reaching a high level of popularity. It is noticeable when there are two editions of O Seminarista, in a period of three years, and the success, which still is, A Escrava Isaura.

As for Brazilian romanticism, Bernardo Guimarães is considered by some critics, such as Coutinho (1986, p. 20-21) and Veríssimo (1954, p. 243), a member of the second generation with José de Alencar, Álvares de Azevedo, Gonçalves Dias, Joaquim Manuel de Macedo. Carpeaux (1964, p. 90-91) presents stylistic and ideological diversity as a criterion of division, positioning the writer from Minas Gerais in what he calls “national and popular romanticism”.

Bosi, regarding Bernardo Guimarães’ regionalist character, states:

“Bernardo Guimarães’ regionalism mixes elements taken to the oral narrative, the ‘causos’ and the ‘stories’ of Minas and Goiás, with a good dose of idealization. This, although not as massive as in Alencar, is responsible for an adjective and conventional language in most harsh pictures.” (BOSI, 1975, p.157)

However, in A escrava Isaura, the writer from Minas Gerais uses as scenarios the interior of Rio de Janeiro and the capital of Pernambuco. In the first environment, possibly inspired by the period in which the writer resided in Rio de Janeiro in the years 1858 and 1859, assuming journalistic and literary critic position in the newspaper Atualidade.

Despite all the creative proof of the writer, Veríssimo (1954, p. 241) informs that Bernardo Guimarães has a composition without the beauty and beauty of style. In addition, he describes that in every romantic work of Bernardo Guimarães there is difficulty in choosing a page in which there is “painting or exemplary expression of the country environment”.

Romero (1960, p. 987) says that the writer from Minas Gerais should be highlighted “by the national character of his narrations, by the simplicity of the plots, by the ease of style”. He considers it as a predecessor of naturalism to contemporary. As for the failures of the author of Minas Gerais in relation to the way of writing, here is his opinion:

“It has us and enough: it is often prosaic, sometimes incorrect and not very superficial. It has a certain delicacy of paints; but he has no strength; it matters but it doesn’t hold, it doesn’t captivate, it doesn’t excite. In any case, it is a product of your environment.” (ROMERO, 1885, p. 38)

Candido (2004, p. 551) recognizes that of Bernardo Guimarães’ books, what remains incorporated into our sensitivity is very little, “beyond the vague memory of the plots”. For him, there is an impression of a plastic nature in his narrative construction, referring to the content of the descriptions.

Therefore, it is observed that Bernardo Guimarães searches in his descriptions of the medium only a elaboration of the scenario to further beautify its protagonist. It is different from other novelists such as José de Alencar, who sought in the description of nature to elaborate a living element for the actions of his characters, such as in O guarani. In this novel, the reader will identify the effect of nature causing the outcome of the work, when the protagonists – Ceci and Peri – who are apprebased by a flood, disappear towards a waterfall on a raft originating from a palm tree. In Vidas secas, by Graciliano Ramos, there is the search for the natural environment as something else, being worked as if it were a character. In Vidas secas, a novel written in the second modernist period, the characters live the evils of drought and what it causes in their development.


As already informed, the year of publication of A escrava Isaura is 1875, that is, six years before the arrival of Realism in Brazil, with the Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas, by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. However, it is noticeable that Bernardo Guimarães presents at certain moments of his characteristic work of the literary era after his.

The ideological foundation of Realism presents analyses related to determinism, evolutionism and positivism. The first proclaims that human behavior is determined by heredity and the environment; the second argues that the human being is moved instinctively, and that there is a natural selection for the survival of the species; the third applies the evolutionary concept of human thought, seeking evidence through observation, comparison and experimentation.

Based on the above reasoning, one can analyze that the characters present realistic elements. Especially as for the character Leoncio. This, taking as an example the father himself, presents deterministic tendencies, being a character produced by heredity and the environment. As for Isaura, this is presented in accordance with the creation given by its sinhá, possessing a well-made image and with essence of sweetness and purity.

As for evolutionary theory, Leôncio acts on instinct, having to seek his satisfaction by possessing the desired slave. In relation to positivist philosophy, the reader, through observations related to the antagonist, finds that he is obsessive about the slave, and a non-acceptance of the defeat suffered in relation to Álvaro, which causes its tragic outcome. Thus, it is analyzed that Leoncio has certain psychic disorders.

It is also verified that Bernardo Guimarães has some moments of Naturalism, current of Realism, as visualized by Guimaraens Filho in the placement of M. Cavalcanti Proença:

“[…] there is in the [de Bernardo Guimarães] novels a naturalistic component, debating the exaggerations of romanticism and opposing the hypertrophic idealism of this a common sense and a more effective and realistic sensuality” (Apud GUIMARAENS FILHO, 1976, p. 12)

Antônio Candido analyzes that Bernardo Guimarães does not demonstrate traces of Naturalism:

“[…] thanks to the natural vision that imprints so much health on […] his work, meat is a normal and necessary component, although he faces it preferably in abnormal situations from a social point of view” (CANDIDO, 1975, p. 239)

Compared to Machado de Assis, Bernardo Guimarães also presents an ironic narration, especially in the description of the character Belchior, touting him as an abominating and misshapeant being at every moment in which he is quoted. Or even in the first conversation between Leôncio vand Álvaro. Leonius demonstrates his sarcastic, debauched side.

In addition, the narrator, who is omniscient, seeks to boost with the reader, that is, calls the reader to participate in the facts to be disclosed, as occurs, for example, in Memórias póstumas de Brás Cubas. It is therefore considered the proposal for dialogue in parts of the two works:

“Don’t think the reader who already thinks he’s finished the dance we were watching. The short tour, which on the outside of it we did in the preceding chapter, seemed necessary to explain to us why a set of fatal circumstances was our heroine, being a slave, was impelled to take the audacious resolution of presenting herself in a splendid and aristocratic soiree…” (Guimarães, 2012 p. 108)

“Consequently, I avoid recounting the extraordinary process i have undertaken in the composition of these Memories, worked here in the other world. It would be curious, but nimily extensive, and, moreover, unnecessary to understand the work. The work in itself is everything: if it pleases you, fine reader, I pay the task; If I don’t please you, I’ll pay you a piparote, and goodbye.” (ASSIS, 2018, p. 18)

Therefore, it is impossible to conclude that Bernardo Guimarães does not have realistic moments in his narrative production. The existence of the writer having had as influence the first realistic productions is coherent, since the first realistic works were in production in Europe, and Machado de Assis also participated in the Brazilian romantic generation, with the novels Ressurreição (1872), A mão e a luva (1874), for example.


After the preparation of all research, it was possible to verify and affirm that the work A escrava Isaura is extremely important for the teaching of literature. The work of the writer Bernardo Guimarães is one of the most important of the romantic era, showing the author’s ability to work with a large amount of characteristics of that period, besides being able to elaborate well situations that could be, perhaps, characterized by the realistic movement.

Moreover, it is proven here that it is still debatable the separation of the group of characteristics that separate the prose from romantic poetry, since prose carries elements from poetics, such as ultraromanticism. This is an idea to be reviewed and reanalyzed by literature scholars.

From the above, the importance of Bernardo Guimarães as one of the greatest Brazilian novelists is evidenced, while always being approached in the study of literature. Thus, this work aimed to serve as an element of inspiration for new studies on the author and about the work discussed here, since there are a lot of possibilities to be explored.


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[1] Postgraduate in Brazilian Literature and higher education with full degree in Letters (Portuguese and English), Professor of Portuguese Language and Literature.

Submitted: Sep, 2018.

Approved: March, 2019.


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